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TV's insipid commercials, decoded

A semiotics professor explores the strange new world of subcomedy, from Progressive Auto Insurance to Omnaris nasal spray.

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Advertisements are one of the canaries of American culture. And, judging by the six hours' worth of TV ads I watched recently, American culture is being debased by an insidious form of comedy.

This supposed comedy has taken the shape of a celebration of the "blah," a passing off of the insipid in place of actual comedy. I watched scores of commercials. All of them were designed to make me laugh. None did.

I'm a professional semiotician, a reader of signs. Three commercials in particular deserve to be decoded.

There before me, hawking the nasal spray Omnaris, is a platoon of tiny men dressed in physicians' white coats. Overhead, like a subplanet, is a giant pink nose. It takes maybe half a dozen of these doctors-cum-soldiers to hoist aloft a giant spray canister, looking like a NASA rocket booster. The bitty men shove it right up to the nostril above them. "Mission accomplished!" one shouts.

Suddenly dark, hard globules of you-don't-want-to-know-what come plummeting from the huge nose onto the Little Men. [Editor's note: The ad doesn't show this, but, viewed in real time, the spot can create this impression.] One of them cries out: "Incoming!" That's the tag line, the corny add-on that ends so many of these presumptively comic ads, aiming for one last grin in the hope you'll recall the spot.

Let's pause here to remember the classical definition of comedy reconstructed from Aristotle's writings: Comedic art inheres in our pleasure at encountering humans worse than the average – the Ignoble. The comic actor puts onstage the Ridiculous, which is a species of the Ugly. The effect of all this Ugliness? Scornful laughter, mercifully separating speaker, spectator, or reader from the Ridiculous.

But this Omnaris ad doesn't reach this threshold. The white-coated men are too minuscule to be Ignoble. "Incoming" is a cliché from war movies. The globules offend taste. This spot's narrative is beneath contempt. I call it, and its kindred ads, the subcomic. This subcomedy is plebeian and quotidian – never too funny to be distracting.

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