Back in the late 1980s there was a television commercial that frightened me. If it appeared, I would drop my Han Solo and bolt out of the room until it was over. Hiding behind the sofa wasn't good enough for I could still hear the jaunty acoustic guitar and waap-waap harmonica behind the sofa. I couldn't hide behind the sofa anyway because we didn't have a sofa. Instead my parents constructed an enormous cliché for me and my siblings to hide behind.
The commercial was for a Sony television. I can't remember the actual model because I only saw the ending once, plus at the time I was rigid with fear so I wasn't paying much attention. There were no bogeymen in this commercial, no dark shadows or sinister music. There were no evil grins or big hats or wolves. There were no ghosts or monsters or Anthony Heads. On the surface, there was nothing disturbing about this commercial at all - except that it told me I was going to die.
A Sony television sits in the middle of a white room. There is a sofa and a picture hanging on the wall but that's it. I think. I might be wrong. (I'd check my facts by searching for the commercial on YouTube but I don't want to regress to my eight year-old self and spend four hours in the toilet with my T-shirt over my head.) In thirty seconds we chart the lives of a family watching the Sony television in the white room. The commercial starts with a young couple cuddling on the sofa and through a succession of rhythmic cuts, we see the couple growing up, raising a family, getting old and eventually dying. Yes, dying. The message of the commercial is that this particular model of Sony television was built to last. Yes. Dying.
The penultimate shot depicts the man (on his own now because the wife is dead) as a lifeless sack of old broken bones under a flat cap. In the next shot, he's gone. Just his slippers remain. The picture falls off the wall.
His slippers remain.
The picture falls off the wall.
Buy a telly.
Most people point to the death of a childhood pet as their first encounter with mortality. Not me. It happened during the ad break of Different Strokes. What made it worse was the fact that the pace of the advert and the upbeat melody of the accompanying tune meant that this commercial was tailored to be amusing. You'll be dead one day but your telly won't! That's right. The day your feeble body, riddled with malignant cells and poisonous pharmaceuticals, farts into the afterlife, your television will still be piping out daytime repeats of Murder She Wrote into the home of someone who will see another sunset. Side-splitting.
I am reminded of this disturbing episode by the current trend in advertising to depict the 'circle of life'. In the last few months, Kleenex, Google Plus, Dulux and others have tried to get us to buy stuff by condensing the life of an average Joe Shaggybeard or Jane Skinnyjeans into half a minute. The commercials differ in tone slightly; if they're colourful and bouncy-bouncy and a ukulele is being strummed by what sounds like a dog with an oven glove, it's just a bit of light-hearted froth to shift paint and beds. If a solo piano is heard and the shots are slower and the images are bleached white as if everything is being viewed through a halo, it's a bit more moving and you may get a touch of the old throaty-lumps.
Google+ opted for the latter as part of their relaunch last year. Social networking sites are supposed to be funky and vibrant yet Google Plus have decided to slap new life onto the arse of their white elephant by emphasising that we all have an expiration date, that in the blink of an eye our babies will be having babies and no amount of cherished jpegs and familial YouTubery is going to decelerate our snuffing.
It is nothing short of terrifying to watch a 25 year-old single woman skip merrily through her living room only to find that in the kitchen she's 40, married with three children and wearing glasses on a neck chain. These scenarios don't make me think about the durability of the product being flogged. I don't tap my chin with the remote control and think 'My, the upholstered furniture in this commercial is certainly showing signs of resilience over the passage of time.' No. I hold the side of my head, rock back and forth and chant 'Death Commercial Begone, Death Commercial Begone' until it's over.
Commercials are awful for the most part (except the one I was in which was extraordinarily good) and in an attempt to move away from predictable narrative set-ups and engage with a more media-savvy audience, advertisers are adopting far more adventurous ways of selling us biscuits and bank loans. This current trend however has unlocked a disturbing childhood memory and prodded at my morbid anxieties.
You're not going to shift tissues that way, Kleenex.
A commercial by Michael Spicer: