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With Our Help, You Can Have It All: The Depressing Rhetoric of Unemployment TV’s Commercials

Kenneth Nichols
Photographer unknown

Viewers of daytime TV are perceived to be losers in need of services (mostly legal), because they don't seem willing to make long-term decisions or capable of helping themselves.

Between the hours of 10AM and 5PM broadcast network stations throughout America sacrifice their airtime on the altar of syndication schadenfreude. The great appeal of The Steve Wilkos Show, Jerry Springer, Maury and the vast roster of judges who make their rulings on a set is the opportunity for the viewer to feel better about themselves. Indeed, most anyone who has seen these shows would refuse to believe that the scratches on their lover’s back came from Scruffles the Cat instead of Random Bar Hookup. Indeed, most anyone who watches these shows would refuse to believe the ridiculous excuses for infidelity they hear, nor would they tolerate the childish behavior exhibited by many guests.

The rhetorical implications of daytime television programs have been studied by everyone from scholars to late-night comedians, but an equally interesting and much more unexpected analysis arises from the study of the commercials that accompany these shows. These repeated solicitations for personal injury representation, low-cost car insurance and payday loans are symptomatic of many of the problems that haunt the overworked and underpaid lower classes and have contributed to the softening of the American economy.

A pervasive short-term mentality and counterproductive economic attitudes led to the inflation of the mortgage bubble, inviting the consequences that occurred when it popped. The marketers hoping to reach men and women without a regular nine-to-five project a discernible ethos: whatever your past and no matter how well or poorly you’ve prepared for the future, you deserve justice, you deserve a better life and with a little help, you can have it all. (Provided “it all” is a “relatively secure middle-class existence.”)

After earning my graduate degree from Ohio State, I moved from Columbus to Central New York and was jobless for a couple of months. While I missed receiving regular paychecks, I did enjoy having the opportunity to catch up on all of the shows that most people miss because they’re at work. I made a detailed analysis of the commercials broadcast during two of the most representative programs of the Unemployment TV genre: The Steve Wilkos Show and Maury. The episodes in question were broadcast on Friday, 24 September 2010.

During the two hours of television between 3PM and 5PM, Fox 68 WSYT (Syracuse, New York) broadcast 61 commercials split between 14 commercial breaks. Nearly one third of these advertisements were in the interest of personal injury attorneys; 11.5 percent were for communications companies (cell phones, etc.); and 9.8 percent were paid for by auto dealerships. Only one advertisement broadcast during this two hour block was dedicated to selling a consumer product (Lysol). This number is significant in itself; viewers of daytime TV are perceived to be in need of services, not products.

It may come as a shock to those who watch a lot of television during the middle of the day (or the middle of the night), but aggressive, creative attorney advertising is a relatively recent phenomenon. As Emily M. Feuerborn notes in her Houston Law Review comment, “What’s Not So ‘Super’ About Comparative Descriptions: The Need for Reform in Attorney Advertising”, rules of professional conduct “broadly prohibited advertising and solicitation of attorney services” during much of the history of television (Symposium, 2008). In 1977, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Bates v. State Bar of Arizona, shifting the status quo and assigning First Amendment protection to attorney advertising, provided such solicitations are truthful.

While each state has its own guidelines, the people’s airwaves are filled with commercials for lawyers who are very angry at whoever wronged you and are fully prepared to hammer the guilty party until you get a big, fat check. The check, of course, has been reduced to account for the attorney’s significant fee—a detail they certainly don’t mention in the commercials. In 2007, the New York State Office of Court Administration amended their Code of Professional Responsibility to prohibit many of the rhetorical techniques used by these kinds of attorneys. The Supreme Court refused to hear a 2010 Circuit Court appeal, effectively asserting that these commercials represent protected speech.

Attorneys who advertise on Unemployment TV appeal to the desire for convenience and the elimination of financial problems. Could you “be entitled to a cash reward?” “Who can help with car bills?” Medical bills? These rhetorical questions are usually followed by the obvious answer: the attorney in question can get the cash you deserve. Conveniently, everything could be “settled out of court.” Like the pretty, blond star of one commercial, you too could soon be holding a settlement check, overcome with happy disbelief.

Best of all, this goal can be achieved with a minimum investment of time and energy. In addition to convenience, those who are home watching television during “normal working hours” are appealed to on the basis of their busy schedules. “Don’t wait for bureaucracy,” one popular attorney urges while he and his partner literally use a CG flying car to circumvent rush hour traffic. “Speed is what you need.”

Attorney spots sometimes run back-to-back, hinting at the competitive nature of personal injury litigation. (According to the American Bar Association, more attorneys call New York home than any other state. These 161,031 lawyers represent 13.1 percent of the nationwide total.) Perhaps this is why the on-camera spokesmen (sometimes the attorney him or herself) are so insistent that you “Call Joe; Joe knows.” Have questions? “We have the answers.” “Call for a free consultation.” Both a uniformed police officer and the attorney himself urge you, should you suspect elder abuse, to give the lawyer a call. (This appeal to action is common to so many sales situations. The car dealer, for example, will say anything to get a customer on the lot, as that’s the only way he can begin to work his magic.)

Number of Commercials by Industry

Unsurprisingly, many of the spots for attorneys feature distinguished-looking white men sitting in well-kept offices or standing in front of shelves filled with thick law books. The importance of money is reinforced by the consistent use of the color green – the color of money -- in onscreen graphics. This subliminal influence is accompanied by rudimentary financial planning advice. What does it mean if the insurance company is eager to settle? “Fast cash,” as one attorney says, “means a huge discount.” You should get a second opinion before settling.

The urgency that marks the attorneys’ rhetoric is inextricably linked to the viewer’s desire for financial security. All of us feel wronged at times; each of us wishes we had assistance in navigating the deliberately byzantine maze that is the American court system. Receiving 66 percent of a large settlement check could easily change our lives, or at least seemingly provide the middle-class security to which so many aspire. This muted ambition allows limited class mobility and fosters a sense of justice at the cost of corporations, whether directly or through an insurance company, reinforcing our increasing desire for someone else to save us from our everyday problems.

The communications industry was the next most frequently advertised. In ads for Assurance Wireless, a multiracial cast of old and young people proclaims the benefits of the service. The young professional can receive phone calls from prospective employers, parents can be available should their child’s school need to call, grandparents can stay in touch with grandchildren and feel safe. In two hours, three Assurance spots emphasized that it’s possible enjoy the company’s services free of charge, thanks to Medicare/Medicaid.

The offer of a free phone and free minutes is significant because they also feed the prevailing ethos: there are always people around to help you. Whether the savior originates from the government or a take-no-prisoners law firm, there are people who will help you acquire what is now relatively ubiquitous. (In this case, cell phone service.) In the past, we would rely upon a vast network of pay phones to double-check shopping lists or let a loved one know when to expect us. With the popularization of cellular phones, this public, streetcorner resource has been replaced. The effort to empower the individual has ironically separated us from each other and stolen some measure of our independence.

With increased accountability comes reduced freedom. The ties that bind us through cell phones reduce our autonomy, even with their promise to the contrary. Indeed, no man is an island, but now no person is out of reach for any significant length of time. The potential to maintain constant contact with everyone in our Contacts list or our Facebook friends deprives us of the independence and productive loneliness that fosters deep, meaningful thought. As a now employed teacher of college freshmen, I have certainly noticed how frequently the average train of thought is derailed by a bleep or bloop or buzz. (Once in a while, it’s a Kelly Clarkson song.)

The ethos of the commercials of Unemployment TV proclaims the ease with which we can achieve our dreams, so long as these are appropriately modest. Six of the commercials I watched offered viewers emergency help with their finances. Montel Williams, former talk show host, asks, “Would an extra thousand dollars come in handy right now?” One wonders who would answer in the negative! Another pair of firms offer lump sums in exchange for a structured settlement. (Possibly the result of a personal injury lawsuit: an amount already reduced by the attorney’s fee, of course.)

These commercials appeal to the viewer’s sense of unfairness in contemporary society. Peachtree’s ad features disappointed people going to their mailboxes and finding them empty. The actors and actresses riding a bus in another spot provide the underlying belief: “It’s my money and I need it now!” The latter evokes perhaps the most potent recent depiction of frustration with modern society: Sidney Lumet’s 1976 film, Network. Instead of being “mad as hell” about the degradation of American public discourse, the daytime TV demographic can be successfully motivated by appealing to their mere impatience, no matter the potential repercussions for a society unwilling to wait.

Viewers who are on the edge of their seat to find out Maury’s DNA results seem willing to trade long-term security for short-term benefit. Instead of waiting 20 years for your full lottery payout, these companies will happily give you a much smaller lump sum immediately. The same psychological equation -- “$50 today = $100 tomorrow” -- applies to the two firms offering to pay “premium prices” for your gold or other scrap metals.

The recent attention earned by popular merchants such as Goldline and Cash4Gold emphasizes the questionable financial advantage of their services. Whether you’re buying gold at above-market prices or selling it at a vast discount, those who purchase ad time during Unemployment TV rely upon viewers to place convenience at a premium. The nine-year-old spokesman for Central New York’s self-proclaimed largest buyer of gold, U.S. Jewelry Exchange, flashes a wad of bills and says, “You need cash now? We’re a cash cow.”

This concept of American ambition is borne out by recent statistics. According to the Congressional Budget Office, after-tax income for the top 20 percent of Americans increased 95 percent between 1979 and 2007. During that same period, income for the bottom 20 percent of Americans increased only 16 percent. The Unemployment TV audience seems to suffer in terms of financial literacy, but there’s a darker implication. Selling precious metals at a steep discount implies extreme economic necessity. Do these consumers need quick, expensive money to pay for food, medical bills or other necessities?

Many of those who enjoy Unemployment TV seemingly cannot obtain car insurance from larger firms; State Farm advertises in prime time, while The General gave marching orders to the daytime audience in his two commercials. The computer-generated mascot answers his own rhetorical question: “How many are uninsured because you think you can’t afford it?” Those who may be financially unprepared for the prime-time carriers are offered monthly payment plans and a low initial investment (with the requisite mess of microscopic fine print). In this way, a customary practice becomes a premium: you can get proof of insurance almost instantly!

Perhaps most disturbing is the consistent reminder that the viewers of Unemployment TV often have difficulty accessing or paying for health care. The advertisers once again put themselves in this position, explicitly appealing to the viewer’s need to provide health care to his or her family. Montel Williams asks if the thousand dollars he’ll send you at an exorbitant interest rate will help you pay a medical bill. As a sufferer of multiple sclerosis, one hopes and assumes that Williams himself has adequate health insurance. The stereotypical old man in front of shelves of leatherbound legal books offers the disabled the “health care benefits” you deserve.

The deregulation and extreme populist rhetoric that have become the norm have allowed those at the top to prosper, thanks to their understanding of the increasingly complicated and business-friendly strictures of the legal system. Those at the bottom of the pyramid are receiving a smaller percentage of the pie, and these commercials are offering them a fraction of a settlement check. This check, of course, is cut by an insurance company that, in turn, passes on the cost to those same lower- and middle-class customers.

Selling gold earrings at pennies on the dollar or trading an annuity or structured settlement for a discounted lump sum indeed sates the desire for instant gratification. The long-term sacrifice, however, ensures a diminished quality of life. What could cushion this psychological blow? A redoubled focus on the commonplace and a glorification of the easily obtained.

I certainly hope that my analysis is the result of my innate pessimism and my tendency to assume the worst of people as a hedge against disappointment. (Gin Blossoms put it best in their hit, “Hey Jealousy:” “If you don’t expect too much from me, you might not be let down.”) It seems, however, that daytime TV marketers are making plenty of money by offering a roadmap for basic survival instead of making appeals to independence and ambition. The attorneys and insurance companies behind these spots clearly understand a prevailing ethos of our time: so long as you’re not hoping for too much in life, “it’s just that easy.”

Kenneth Nichols earned an MFA in Creative Writing from The Ohio State University. He currently teaches playwriting, composition and other courses at Oswego State University and Cayuga Community College.

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