The New Hammy

Before irony and winking became the chief way advertisers tricked you into wanting to buy their products, they relied—ages and ages ago—on rhetoric and persuasion. Like in this Subway ad:

Then came cable TV and MTV and commercials had to compete entertainment-wise with programs and so ads got performative and hammy. Like in this Subway ad:

I think the hammy quotient—and what I mean by this is the exaggerated or overly theatrical quality of the acting—is legible to us post-millennial viewers. There’s something immediately artificial about them. Like, no sandwich artist has or will ever present a sub to us this way:

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And this guy is such a risible failure of a punker:

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In this way, TV commercials have always been things we laugh at, which was lovely because (as I’m going to keep developing and thinking about in some blog posts to come) what you can laugh at has less power over you.

Lately, though (and yes this isn’t a new phenomenon just newer), TV commercials have become things we’re meant to laugh with. They’re aiming to be funny the way vids people forward from Funny Or Die are. Like this Subway ad from 2014 (which runs twice in the clip, no need to stay for the whole 30 seconds):

The elementary way of talking about what’s happening here is that it’s self-aware hammyness. Meta-ham. I think something more complex is going on. This ad isn’t so much about the hammyness of commercial actors, it deliberately opts for hammyness as a way to keep us entertained—us who have grown immune to hammy actors in commercials.

Here’s the thing, though, these bacon lovers are just as risible and inauthentic as the punker with a burger in his hand nosing that chain-link fence. The way they archly express their love for bacon so widely misses the mark of how performative post-YouTube/rise of foodie culture folks archly express their love for bacon.

I can’t pinpoint yet where the difference lies, and Subway is one example I’m picking on. This is, for certain products aimed at a demographic I’m slowly growing out of (or—horrors!—is this sensibility growing up alongside me?), the norm for selling ads now: a winking irony that claims to vault above advertising’s base cloyingness, but in its failure to spring from anything real ends up reading just as inauthentically as every ad in TV history.

All right, work to do. And don’t worry, I, too, hope I don’t turn into Jon Rosenblatt, 27, a Harvard University English graduate student specializing in modern and postmodern critical theory

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