We all know the importance and impact of TV commercials on consumers, society and the economy. Then, why doesn’t the media critique them as it does movies, TV shows and even restaurants?


There are critics for virtually everything in commerce: cars, food, wine, movies, TV shows… except for TV commercials, yet they influence consumers, politics, society, economy and entertainment. In the U.S., TV commercials generate at least $75 billion a year in revenues for TV stations. In the U.K., audiences as a whole now watch a total of around 2.7 billion commercials a day, according to media analysts Thinkbox.

And this is without including the millions of people worldwide who watch TV spots on YouTube.

In 2014, U.S.$537 billion were spent worldwide for advertising. Viewers are exposed to TV commercials more than any other visual stimulant. They influence markets, consumer spending, political outcomes, style and trends. They can be wise, visually entertaining, informative, funny, but also misleading, deceptive, boring, offensive, gross and even idiotic.

And yet, according to U.S. advertising analyst Jack Myers, no one currently in the U.S. media has a regular TV commercial critic. Why?

Well, The New York Times has had a feature in their “Media” section called “Advertising,” since 1935 (now in its Monday editions), but it tends to review trends (“What’s Madison Avenue Pitching Now? Social Awareness,” was a recent feature), rather than comment on individual commercials.

Phil Dougherty was one of the Times’ most influential columnists covering advertising from 1966 until 1988, and I remember that, in the late ’70s, the journalist reporting on advertising at my former publication, Television/Radio Age, would get the Times five days a week, just to read Dougherty’s columns.

For Dougherty’s 1988 obituary, the Times wrote, “the column was, in effect, a reflection of developments, major and minor, in the advertising world.” That was because even then the Times covered advertising like a trade publication would. The obit continued: “He firmly believed that advertising played an integral role in the nation’s economy.” And if he were to be critical it was only for ad industry issues, like, “failure to provide opportunities for women and minorities.”

Before TV/Radio Age ceased publication in 1989, it covered advertising with two features: “Commercials,” and “Selling Commercials.” The former was about agencies and creative directors, the latter was about the agencies’ new TV spots for different clients. But, like the Times, never in a critical or analytic way.

Today, some newspapers, like The Los Angeles Times, have their television critics, like Mary McNamara, reviewing TV commercials during major televised events such as the Super Bowl. And this is because the American football season finale is also watched for its TV commercials. This year in particular one that got both rants and raves was a TV spot from Budweiser, which recreated the brewery founder Adolphus Busch’s hardship in being accepted as a U.S. immigrant from Germany in 1850. President Trump’s supporters, who viewed it as a pro-immigrant statement, criticized the spot.

USA Today has an “Ad-meter” feature to review ads, but only after the Super Bowl, and The Wall Street Journal runs a yearly “Best and Worst Ads of the Year,” which can be very critical.

In the U.S., the Federal Trade Commission enforces advertising laws and regulations, but not too effectively.

Recently I wrote a commentary for the Italian press on two TV commercials that caught my attention: One for the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas, the other for Galbani mozzarella (now owned by the Belgian Groupe Lactalis). Because of my criticism of the stereotypical Galbani TV spot (and the praise of the Venetian), the piece was never published in Italy.

John Cuddihy from University of Miami, Florida, put it in perspective: “Two of the biggest U.S. publications in advertising are Advertising Age and Adweek. Because they are trades they don’t go out of their way to be critical of television commercials. The reason is they don’t want to bite the hand that feeds them.” Indeed, in Italy the editor of an advertising trade magazine explained that her publication had to stop criticizing TV spots in order not to lose ad pages.

(By Dom Serafini)

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