Where does state-of-the-art videomaking reside? Would we find it in live satellite coverage of newsworthy events, multi-camera coverage of a football game, the classy productions of Masterpiece Theater, the fast-paced, effects-ridden music videos? Though the last mentioned approaches the summit, none of them makes the grade. Only television advertising truly lays claim to the title “state of the art.” It has held the trophy firmly year after year almost back to the advent of television broadcasting.

TV advertising occupies the throne not only because it employs state-of-the-art video technology. Rather, it’s because it fully employs the innate power of the medium toward ends perfectly suited for the exercise of that power.

That’s the reason all videomakers should dissect ads. A careful study of TV ads leads to an encounter with Television Itself, with video’s very essence.

First, look at the development of modern advertising theory. In the mid-19th century, P.T. “the public loves to be fooled” Barnum convinced thousands to come gawk at “the world’s only mastodon” (an African elephant) and the “Feejee mermaid” (the head of a monkey sewed to the tail of a fish). He used brash posters, brass bands and a rhetoric inflated and mysterious to pull the marks in through the tent-flap. Say “so long” to the reasoned argument for the merits of a product. Say “howdy” to emotional pumping-up and the stirring of the passions. Welcome the modern era of advertising.

The craft took another giant step forward in 1904 when print ad-man Albert Lasker and copywriter John E. Kennedy launched the approach they dubbed “salesmanship in print.” The most effective ad, for them, would emulate the activity of a flesh-and-blood salesperson. It would no longer simply shout slogans to the masses; it would make a persuasive pitch to the individual reader. Once, all the world thought that the product was the subject of the ad. Now the ad experts started to show us that it could be the prospect instead. The “prospect”? That’s you and me. Advertising had begun speaking to us, not about soap, but about us: our needs, hopes and desires. At about this time, soap stopped emitting suds; now it radiated fulfillment.

Madison Avenue lost little time in devoting itself to psychology. It soon hung Abraham Maslow’s map of human motivations next to its sales charts. Ads henceforth would stir the primal drives and fears that lie subconscious in us most of the time. Why? When they stir us in such a way, we more willingly accept soaps, sodas or seat cushions as the objects of our longings.

And then along came television. After the second world war, the tube established itself as a national medium. Today, we behold a medium for mass communication that delivers every message in “living” color and stereo sound. These do not stimulate cool reasoning; poorly do they convey rational argument. But when it comes to stimulating the emotions, stirring latent fears, hopes and passions, nothing does the trick better than color, moving images, memory-provoking sounds and stirring music. Looking for the ideal medium for modern depth-advertising? Television is just what the doctor, be he Freud or Maslow, ordered.

Years ago, certain journalists revealed that advertisers were planting subliminal messages in print ads, television programs and movies. The movie, Max Headroom, satirizes this practice with its “blipvert:” a second-long stream of greatly compressed advertising messages that can cause brains to explode. In real life, the public became suitably outraged by subliminal ads, and, so far as we know, the advertisers stopped using them. By the end of this controversy, however, we all missed a profound fact. Television, by its nature, plays upon our subconscious passions. Subliminal advertising was an unnecessary redundancy, just video-as-usual with a turbo-charger.

What does this all mean to the mind behind the camcorder? We can learn techniques from advertising: its economy of expression, its powerful use of the visual to communicate, its use of juxtaposition, music, pacing, humor. We can watch with awe just how much the masters of the medium can communicate in 30 seconds.

Perhaps we can learn also wherein the power of videomaking lies–and to use it cautiously, wisely.

Stephen Muratore is Videomaker‘s Editor in Chief.

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