It is doubtful that there is a better proprietor of camp than the American television advertisement. Havens for near-expired celebrity, sometimes ingeniously manipulative, and inherently disposable: these are of little repute as a form of art. This is not to degrade the medium, but to describe its erroneous shortage of milestones in comparison to other film media. At least, Other Cinema’s The 70s Dimension — a curated assemblage of 16mm commercials from the decade — supports my generalizations, which is not to say it’s not totally entertaining.
There are flaws that the format persistently retains: little variety or progress in the execution of its concept (for measure, how many car commercials have you seen with a camera that pivots around an automobile on some desolate, beautiful highway?), but foremost is that they intend to debase your well-being. They are designed to elicit need, to exploit insecurity, or to make a possession covetable. Panty hose are equivalent to beer in a consumerist market because they both desire profit; at least, each is advertised by an attractive woman who leers at you with confidence; you need these panty hose, or you need this beer.
Advertisements risk inspiring a viewer’s distrust, and in turn inhibit evaluation of the medium for its propensity as art. What purpose there is in evaluating these clips favors how they exhibit the symptoms of inflation, capitalism, and ephemeral material trends better than any other contemporary recorded media. They are useful as time capsules that preserve our more laughable and disreputable consumerist tendencies, and less so as examples of creativity because, unlike the programming that houses them, they’re made without the proper or necessary motivations.
The 70s Dimension contains many ads that contradict these blanket criticisms, because competence and sensitivity — fortunately, in this case — are traits that often fail to characterize advertising. The set is cohesive, firstly, in how it illustrates an entire decade’s signature aesthetics without any irony whatsoever. More engaging, however, is how similar many of these ads are to their contemporary iterations. Cosmetics, alcohol, or automobiles are sold virtually in the same manner; specificity evolves (the number of blades on your razor), but the desire to profit remains more primal and unembellished. The medium’s evolution is discerned by its artifacts; being as their purpose remains unchanged, we are left to patronize what was popular in the past.
Such is expected, but the treat of this set is in assessing the failure to advertise a product as intended. This compendium includes titles of note, for reasons that are precisely analogous to their basic utility. My favorite is a teaser for a made-for-television film entitled My Dad Lives in a Downtown Hotel, which, in thirty seconds, makes a sympathetic telling of divorce from a child’s perspective seem ripe with humor. By contrast, there is a truly sinister spot consisting of one shot of a furious, snorting Muhammad Ali.
What laurels television advertising incurs are measured in accordance with how well it meets its purpose to sell. The fault, I think, is that this intention to sell you something overwhelms any other potential motivation, whereas film and music (two examples of medias whose canon during the same decade has garnered inordinate praise by comparison) do not hinge as dependently on a means, in turn housing less of a risk of being outmoded. And this enables the entertainment of The 70s Dimension, in that time has excised the possibility to buy or even find the products advertised. What’s left is a medium whose audience no longer remains, enabling, for the first time, the option for retrospection.