Judge Bill Gibron says there's no ancient Chinese secret to dress up a disc full of commercials.
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It's safe to say that no one will ever confuse the classic commercials of yesteryear with art. Unless you're discussing the finer skills of the hard sell or the shrill shill, these 30-to-60-second moments are held in very low regard. And why not? Emphasizing product placement and name recognition value over basic cinematic principles like clever camera work or subtle acting, Madison Avenue's offspring are a pretty uninspired bunch. It wasn't until the now-famous Super Bowl ad for Apple Computers—Ridley Scott's apocalyptic vision of the future entitled "1984"—that advertising discovered it could utilize elements of filmmaking and Hollywood spectacle to increase its audience awareness. Suddenly, commercials were event items, chances for the usually dismissed medium to show off a little ingenuity. Big-name directors and even more impressive superstars started hawking everything they could, and small screen craftsmen were chasing big screen dreams. So, in some ways, the more innocent, irritating days of advertising truly represent the actual commercial mentality: instantly memorable images layered with buzzwords, innuendo, and impractical perfection, all set to the tune of a earworming jingle.
That all being said, why anyone would want to sit though 90 minutes of advertisements, selected at random and revealing scant relevance to the medium or its message is a question for Passport Video, which releases Hit Celebrity TV Commercials as though each word in that title actually means something important. Sadly, nothing could be further from the truth. There are no "hits" here, no memorable moments from the Madison Avenue film factory. Anything remembered for its classic creativity, from Apple's antics, to Alka Seltzer's clever come-ons ("Plop, Plop, Fizz, Fizz" and "I Can't Believe I Ate the Whole Thing") is sadly MIA on this collection. Even oft-quoted examples of archetypal ad work, not necessarily the most effective or essential sequences in the genre's history, are all but absent. Sure, Mr. Whipple and his Charmin-squeezing proclivities are featured, and less famous facets of familiar campaigns (Dr. Pepper, Lays Potato Chips) are around to recall the good old days. But mostly, this is stunt packaging, a near test of truth in…you know what…to see who will bite on the bait before the switch is uncovered. And not everyone here is an actual "star," in any broad interpretation of the word. Is someone best—even only—remembered for his or her ad work really a celebrity, a title that seems to suggest a level of superstar status that goes beyond a 60-second attention span? Would you recognize Palmolive's Madge or that finicky feline Morris outside their industry element? Just like the selection of samples for this compilation, the cast of icons featured on this DVD is suspect at best.
So, you may be asking, are there any moments here worth taking a look at? Any chance at entertainment or amusement? Well, if you consider the non-PC perfection of the Frito Bandito, his full-farce Pancho Villa verbal vocalizing ready to smear the entire Mexican population, on your agenda of must-see ad TV, then yes, you will find a few guilty pleasure moments on this title. Seeing Buddy Hackett degrade the Chinese with his awful imitation, and the overt sexism of Don Johnson's Miami Vice-inspired Pepsi commercial, will definitely tickle your progressive predilections. Frank Gorshin (that forgotten God of nightclubs and television) puts his impersonation skills to the test with a weird take on Marlon Brando that's more menacing than mimicry. Art Linkletter watches kids eat toaster pizzas that look like underdone human flesh, and he's happy about the whole cannibal kids thing. From Dustin Hoffman—or better yet, the young, spry being that now lives inside the wrinkled relic called "Dustin Hoffman"—to an oh-so-threatening O.J. Simpson, you'll definitely be amused and confused by this DVD.
You also get to witness some of the memorable missteps (Lucy and Desi hawking Phillip Morris coffin sticks, Marilyn Monroe trying to make motor oil sexy) and a few iconic artifacts from advertising's archeology (Iron Eyes Cody crying over litter, Cybill Shepherd posing as a fresh faced Cover Girl, years before we'd all discover what a fudged-up witch she really was). But honestly, the majority of the merchandising moments here are interchangeable filler, not really memorable for anything at all. Are you really going to get hyper over Ed "Kookie" Burns pitching a hot comb (assuming you know what either of those two entities mentioned—the actor and/or the product—actually are)? Does Groucho Marx doing a five-second automotive spot make up for his bumbling brothers Harpo and Chico pushing home permanents? (Does anyone still use home permanents?) Who cares if whipping Carnation Non-Fat Dry Milk "crystals" with prepared mustard (bleech!) can make a grotesque meat topping? Is Arte Johnson pushing pickles fun? Can you cotton to Ronald Reagan befriending Borax? And is a pre-surgery Bruce Jenner still your idea of a sensible Wheaties symbol—especially after the rhinoplasty and Can't Stop the Music? For every interesting item on Hit Celebrity TV Commercials, you are stuck slogging through a dozen dopey, derivative examples of advertising at its most medieval. And that hardly seems like solid entertainment.
Nostalgia is one thing, and seeing superstars at the beginning of their careers is always good for a rude reality check. But Hit Celebrity TV Commercials is meager when it comes to unforgettable instances, and overweight with worthless digital space savers. As much as humans like air conditioning, furniture wax, and steak sauce, seeing Frank Gifford, Mariette Hartley, and Boris Karloff hawk them is no real treat. (Anyone who said "who?" three times is excused from the table, okay?)
Neither is the DVD presentation by Passport. It's actually hard to comment fairly on the content, both sound- and image-wise, since no real attempt has been made to secure pristine versions of these ads. Some are clean and clear. Others really show their age. The video items are stunning fresh and new. The kinescope sequences are like watching bad reruns on an aging Philco. Everything about the 1.33:1 full screen transfer is suspect, since many seem truncated of essential elements (several just end, without any real commercial closure). Aural issues abound, as sonics seem to be the first things to go when film gets decrepit. With no bonus material whatsoever, a weird introduction that tries to sell the stellar nature of these "classic" examples of salesmanship, and a menu that's nearly impossible to navigate, Hit Celebrity TV Commercials is a cobbled-together collection of patchiness pawned off on the unsuspecting public as a greatest hits compilation of favorite performers and their penultimate Madison Avenue adventures. So much for truth in…so and so—or DVD manufacturing.
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