“She Never Told Him”, A Lesson in Sales

Sometimes when I am in a hotel room on some trip in an unfamiliar time zone, jet lag wakes me up at an odd hour and I watch television. Within 15 minutes, I again feel vindicated in my decision not to own an idiot box.

At 4am or so in the morning in Southern California, channel after channel offered the same meme:

(1) You are not all right the way you are (e.g., you are fat, lonely, unattractive, out of work, poor)
(2) There is a product you can buy that will immediately make you all right

All the 30 minute advertisements masquerading as talk shows or game shows or medical shows did indeed address genuine problems (e.g., obesity), but only insofar as would instill anxiety and self-hatred in viewers sufficent to induce them to pick up the phone or order whatever crap exercise equipment, pill, CD, book, or educational course was being hawked.

The most vivid was “confidential confessions”, in which a series of attractive young women told us viewers what they would not tell their boyfriend, namely that he was sexually inadequate and needed to buy some herbal concoction ASAP or it would be splitsville. It recalled nothing so much as “P.P” (pedic perspiration), the brainchild of ad man Gordon Comstock in Keep the Aspidistra Flying, touted on billboards saying “She never told him” why the engagement was off, but it was P.P., for which Comstock was promoting a supposed remedy.

This all becomes sadder when one thinks about who watches T.V. at 4am. The audience then is disproportionately suffering from major depression (early morning awakening is a symptom), alone, unhappy and unemployed. Advertisers are shooting fish in a barrel…I am not sure how they look at themselves in the mirror without feeling some of the self-loathing they try to instill in potential customers.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

7 thoughts on ““She Never Told Him”, A Lesson in Sales”

  1. That and “reality shows”. Hangin’s too good for the guy who invented the reality show foremat.
    All I watch on TV is old movies, the news and the weather. Well, 2 1/2 Men reruns are fun. But mostly old movies.

  2. LOL….this is probably my favorite Keith H. post.

    The Spanish info-mercials are worst, and I can’t even imagine the products the Asian channels try to sell. One info-mercial I regrettably watched was a skin cream being pushed by an obviously surgically enhanced woman in her late 30s or early 40s. What made the cream different from all the others? “Baba de caracol” or snail’s spit. I kid you not. It makes me laugh every time I talk about it with friends over drinks, so maybe it’s not completely useless.

  3. All true, as far as it goes. Of course, there are worthless self-help books but I’m not sure that’s a reason to give up reading.

  4. “I am not sure how they look at themselves in the mirror without feeling some of the self-loathing they try to instill in potential customers.”

    Oh they do, they do. What else could cause a person to stoop so low in pursuit of the big bucks to try to fix it?

  5. Right on, Blutarski. Agreed that a lot of TV is a waste, but if I didn’t own and watch a TV, I would have missed out on watching The Wire and The Sopranos over the past year.

  6. Blutarski and Scott: There is no question that there always has and always will be good things on TV. But that is separate from the decision to own one. If a show is good, it will come out on DVD free of commercials and you can watch just that (a friend gave me the first season of The Wire for example, and it was a good show). I have been impressed by research showing how many people who say they just watch a few good shows in fact watch hours of extra TV, they flip it on automatically and surf for something to watch….and life goes by.

  7. Following up Blutarski and Scott Carpenter, let’s make the comparison explicit.

    How many infomercials are there on TV, as a fraction of airtime? Even with a very broad definition (e.g., including “Undercover Boss”), no more than 10 or 15%.
    How many truly worthless books are there in print, as a fraction of the whole? I dare you to count the subject placards at your local Barnes & Noble and tell me it’s less than 30%.
    How much of the internet is devoted to scammy crap? I know it’s north of 90% for e-mail, but all those e-mails have links to websites.

    Now, there’s no question that there always have been and always will be good things on the internet. But as anyone who’s ever owned a computer can tell you, people will just click aimlessly, surfing for something to read or watch… while life goes by. I guess what I’m saying is that if this “Keith Humphreys” guy is any good, he’ll get a book deal and I can read him that way–free of banner ads so that I can just read. If he’s really sharp, maybe I’ll see him on my idiot box!

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