The Manipulative Power of Commercials

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In the movie Dumb and Dumber, there is a scene in which the two main characters weep uncontrollably while watching television. On the screen, we see two children carrying bags, united with an older male figure, walk towards a house as the camera slowly zooms out. One of the children is heard saying, “Do you think he’ll let us stay?” It’s clearly a touching “happy ending” to a sad movie.

Until the scene ends with the logo for Pacific Bell and a narrator promoting the company. What they were watching—and weeping uncontrollably to—was a commercial.

The movie is, of course, a complete farce, and this scene further highlights how “dumb” the two characters are; they are completely out of touch with reality. And yet, what makes this scene so funny is that I think it resonates with each one of us: we know what it’s like to get sucked in by an emotional commercial.

It’s sort of a remarkable feat, isn’t it? Commercials have less than 30 seconds to introduce characters, develop a plot, and resolve a conflict, and yet can tell some amazing stories. Many make us laugh. Some can actually be quite profound.

And all of them are trying to manipulate our emotions in some way.

That’s what Br. Tito and I decided to discuss this week on our podcast, Everyday Liminality. Looking at some of our favorite—and least favorite—commercials, we look at the power ads wield over us and suggest that we should always be on our guard for the tricks companies try to use against us.

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