One of the themes in commercials, at least recently, seems to be the dysfunctional relationship.
In one commercial, for T-Mobile, a dating couple (at least they look like they’re dating) go shopping. She asks him for his opinion on two dresses, two pairs of shoes, and two sets of earrings. In each case, he indicates his preference and she rejects it, selecting the other choice. He then uses this insight to get the phone color he wants. So, in addition to learning that you have color choices--which is the pitch of this particular commercial—the message also seems to be saying that dishonest questions are the rule of the day, and that deception, deceit, and disconfirmation are all part of the dating and relationship experience.
In another phone commercial—this one for Verizon—the father tells everyone in the family that each is No. 1 and then, when alone, acknowledges that he is “numero uno.” So, in addition to telling the viewer that Verizon has certain capabilities, the commercial also communicates the suggestion to tell people what they want to hear (even members of your own family) and then just go on your merry way.
In a Domino’s Pizza commercial a couple is waiting for delivery. The man, trying to look his sexiest, says we have 30 minutes to delivery and asks if she has any ideas as to how to spend the time. Her response: What will we do with the other 28 minutes? If anyone wants a lesson in how to make his or her partner feel totally inadequate, this commercial will tell you how to do it. The woman is made to look unsupportive, critical, and extremely negative; the man is made to look like an unresponsive fool.
In still another commercial, one for Fidelity Investments, a couple is talking about retirement planning. The husband is trying to act knowledgeable but the wife knows and shows in no uncertain terms that he really knows nothing about finance. She makes her life partner of maybe 30 or 40 years look like a complete imbecile and seems to enjoy the experience. So, in addition to making the point that Fidelity Investments does everything for you, the commercial perpetuates the stereotypes of the incompetent man and the nagging woman and tells us what to expect in a relationship—criticism, one person putting down the other, and an inability or unwillingness to relate in any meaningful way.
I assume that these commercials do persuade some people to buy the product and that some people do find these funny—otherwise, I guess, they wouldn’t be on television and the company wouldn’t be spending millions to air them. Exactly why these commercials are effective or why they are thought funny, however, is not at all clear to me. But, I am convinced that these commercials contribute at least somewhat to teaching viewers about relationships— the way to disconfirm and manipulate your relationship partner, the way you can insult and demoralize your partner, and the kinds of antagonistic relationships you can expect to have.
I suspect a useful interpersonal communication exercise could easily be developed around the search for gender stereotypes, compliance-gaining, confirmation and disconfirmation, relationship conflict, ethics, and a variety of other concepts and principles in television, print, and Internet commercials. Perhaps some commercials can be found that offer more productive and functional relationship examples. It would be nice.