Years ago when I was a creative director at an ad agency/design firm, I wrote a campaign for a wood-fire Chicago steakhouse that included print ads and billboards featuring an illustration of Mrs. O’Leary’s cow and the headline: “IT’S PAYBACK TIME.” Based on assorted letters to the editor there was virtually no one who liked the ad itself. Vegans were outraged. Local historians raced to the defense of the unfairly maligned cow. Even committed carnivores didn’t particularly like the idea of eating an animal in an act of revenge, joke or no.
None of that hostility transferred to the restaurant, however. The campaign worked. Diner traffic to the restaurant increased.62
In Infinite Jest, Wallace describes a series of television commercials so appalling they virtually destroy broadcast television, even as sales of the products advertised in the spots soar.
(E)ven though the critics and P.T.A.s and eating-disorder-oriented distaff PACs were denouncing the LipoVac spots’ shots of rippling cellulite and explicit clips of procedures that resembled crosses between hyperbolic Hoover Upright demonstrations and filmed autopsies and cholesterol conscious cooking shows that involved a great deal of chicken-fat drainage, and even though audiences’ flights from the LipoVac spots themselves were absolutely gutting ratings for the other ads and the shows around them…the LipoVac string’s revenues were so obscenely enhanced by the ads that LipoVac Unltd. could soon afford to pay obscene sums for 30-second Network spots, truly obscene, sums the besieged Four now needed in the very worst way. And so the LipoVac ads ran and ran, and much currency changed hands, and overall Network ratings began to slump as if punctured with something blunt.
It’s a very funny and smart observation, and there are plenty of examples of this phenomenon throughout advertising history. Currently there’s a series of spots for the Palm Pre that is pretty much reviled by everybody, even as the early returns show a spike in the product’s profile. And I probably don’t have to say anything more than “Head On! Apply directly to the forehead!” to cause a cringing face to appear as a reflection in your laptop screen.63
Wallace anticipated the success of a number of technologies–time shifting and DVRs and On Demand video, for instance–that have changed our relationship with television and more specifically with advertising. But perhaps most relevant to Infinite Jest is a recent study published in the Journal of Consumer Research suggesting that viewers enjoy television programs when commercial breaks are included more than the same programs shown without commercials “by a decisive margin.” This is true even though “at every given moment watching the sitcom will be more enjoyable than watching a television commercial.” I’m not sure the authors of that study have a handle on exactly why that this is.64
There would seem to be an interesting take on the subject within the pages of Infinite Jest, however.
The Steeply and Marathe sections explicitly establish the idea that freedom in the form of “choosing” is supposed to make us happy, but is really a cage in itself. The Ennet House and ETA chapters are concerned with the related paradox that, while “fascism” by its nature is clearly an immoral incursion on the dignity of the individual, we must surrender to a kind of “personal fascism” (here in the form of AA or sadistic conditioning drills) if we are serious about pursuing happiness.65 “We are children, bullies but still children inside, and will kill ourselves…if you put the candy within the arms’ reach,” Steeply says. Without some authority looking after our better interests, and left to our own choosing, we will surely follow the path of short-term gratification over long-term satisfaction–we will choose to watch The Entertainment even knowing the dire consequences of that decision.
So isn’t it interesting that while very few of us would choose to watch commercials if given an opportunity to skip them, almost all of us find the program with commercial interruptions forced upon us more pleasurable than the program without them?
And isn’t it also interesting that, some 13 years before the surprising results of this study, Wallace published a novel (a novel specifically about the inevitably fatal pursuit of uninterrupted pleasure) with the interruptions mercifully built in?