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When TV commercials are on repeat, ad nauseam

Adobe, AP, Megan Lam/Globe Correspondent

Welcome to my gripe session about the age-old problem of TV commercials, those bits of our precious time during which we learn exactly how white our shirts can be. Think of it as a FEDup talk, rather than a TEDx talk.

Our attention is money, and, when we watch a show, we spend a few minutes of it watching ads, to pay for shows on the growing number of ad-tiered streaming services, on broadcast TV, and on basic cable. “Abbott Elementary”? “What We Do in the Shadows”? “The Daily Show”? Sure, I’ll sit through a few pitches to pay for you. I’ll be marketed to in the name of Nandor, Nadja, Laszlo, and Guillermo.


Of course many of us are entirely sheltered from commercials; we pay in dollars instead of minutes. If you can afford it, you can subscribe to any number of streaming platforms and cable channels and dodge all of those insidious jingles, logos, and ruthless 30-second emotional manipulations. These days, pay TV may well be the best non-commercial viewing zone available; even movie theaters feverishly promo products while you wait, captive.

But this gripe session is for those times when ads are unavoidable, when you’re watching broadcast’s “on demand” shows, say, or an ad-tiered Peacock show, and forced to submit, the fast-forward button having been nefariously disempowered. It’s for those TV viewers who find themselves in front of the most unimaginative ads possible, and, worst of all, see them over and over again, sometimes three times during the same break, to the point where you’ve memorized them and actually recite them back at the screen.

To the point where you’re almost mesmerized by the pain, where you could actually turn off the volume for a short while, or go for a snack in the kitchen, but somehow you don’t. You semi-consciously decide to let the commercial take over, to bow to the insurance companies and the pharmaceutical brands with all their hurriedly-whispered warnings of death, depression, and dizziness. Slash. Audition. What’s in YOUR wallet? Slash. Audition. What’s in YOUR wallet? It becomes a kind of dark hypnosis.


This gripe is for those who feel, as I do, that when all is said and done, and you’re far away from the TV, you don’t want to have anything to do with those over-pushed products — out of vengeance, yes, but also because you don’t want to trigger memories of that numbing ad. I don’t want to buy the offending product and, every time I look at it, hear that catchphrase or that song or see that graphic in my mind’s eye. I don’t want to capitulate and traumatize myself all over again.

If some business, be it a network, a cable company, a streamer, or a production house, is going invite me to make an in-kind exchange — my eyes for their entertainment — then I think they should honor the exchange by not torturing me. Give me imaginative ads, sure, but also, don’t bombard me with the same ads. Surely technology, which is able to write thank you notes and “Seinfeld” scripts at this point, is also able to protect us from this affront.

I know, there are business justifications for this kind of annoyance — a station fulfilling its contract with an advertiser to air the commercial a certain number of times, or the lack of other demographically appropriate ads to fill the break space. Some say that the science of brainwashing has proven that frequency is key, that hammering a message home works, no matter what people like me say. If you haven’t seen it a bunch of times, you haven’t seen it.


Yeah, I don’t really care. At best, the bombardment is careless, at worst it’s exploitation. When we watch TV, even the challenging shows that ask us to think and piece together plots and themes, we’re in a kind of passive mode. We’re open, taking it in. We don’t deserve to be punished with a blitz of redundancy simply because we’re paying attention. We deserve to be honored for bothering to watch.

Commercials are making a comeback. Much of the television industry is in a state of panic — not just the broadcast networks over smaller audiences, but the streamers over account-sharing, stock pricing, and the growing multiplicity of competitors. Most of the streamers — HBO Max, Disney+, Netflix, Hulu, Discovery+, Peacock, Paramount+ — are trying to beef up their numbers by offering cheaper subscriptions that include commercials. Netflix, which added its ad-supported option in November, is reportedly saying that the company has gotten twice as many ad-tier subscriptions in January than it did in November.

In summation: Now is probably not the time to treat TV viewers with ad-related contempt.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at matthew.gilbert@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.