The Old Discovery Channel Ad

For those who haven’t seen it, over a decade ago the Discovery Channel made and ran this ad to promote their television shows:

Now, when it comes to advertising, a great deal of skepticism and even cynicism is warranted. I think that this is expressed nowhere so well as in what might be one of The Last Psychiatrist’s best posts, The Dove Sketches Beauty Scam. It’s well worth reading the whole thing, and gives a good perspective on supposedly wholesome advertisements. Here is possibly my favorite part, though it loses something out of context:

“Oh my God,” you might say, “I know it’s just an ad, but it’s such a positive message.”

If some street hustler challenges you to a game of three card monte you don’t need to bother to play, just hand him the money, not because you’re going to lose but because you owe him for the insight: he selected you.  Whatever he saw in you everyone sees in you, from the dumb blonde at the bar to your elderly father you’ve dismissed as out of touch, the only person who doesn’t see it is you…

I think that TLP is substantially correct.

So, all that said, I think that there is something of value in this ad, despite it being an ad. The value is two-fold, and I say this as someone who hasn’t watched TV, and hence hasn’t watched the Discovery Channel, in close to two decades now. Actually, before I get to those, let me quote the main conclusion (which is in the penultimate section) of TLP’s post:

That Dove wants you to think of it as the authority on beauty so it can sell you stuff makes sense, there’s nothing underhanded about it and hardly worth the exposition.  The question is, why do they think this will work?  What do they know about us that makes them think we want an authority on beauty– especially in an age where we loudly proclaim that we don’t want an authority on beauty, we don’t like authorities of any kind, we resist and resent being told what’s beautiful (or good or moral or worthwhile) and what’s not?…

“But I hated the ad!”  Oh, I know, for all the middlebrow acceptable reasons you think you came up with yourself.  Not relevant.  The con artists at Dove didn’t select these women to represent you because you are beautiful or ugly, any more than the street hustler selected you for your nice smile.   They were selected because they represent a psychological type that transcends age/race/class, it is characterized by a kind of psychological laziness: on the one hand, they don’t want to have to conform to society’s impossible standards, but on the other hand they don’t want the existential terror of NOT conforming to some kind of standard.  They want an objective bar to be changed to fit them– they want “some other omnipotent entity” to change it so that it remains both entirely valid yet still true for them, so that others have to accept it, and if you have no idea what I’m talking about look at your GPA: you know, and I know, that if college graded you based on the actual number of correct answers you generated, no curve, then you would have gotten an R…

“Everybody gets something out of every transaction,” said Joe, explaining why people want to be conned.  That’s what ads do for you.  They’ll let you complain that they are telling you what to want, as long as you let them tell you how to want.

Again, TLP is substantially correct. (I, personally, tended to get almost every answer on every test right, and teachers tended to ignore me as an outlier when setting curves, but that’s irrelevant to the point.) So how does the Discovery Channel ad have value when it is substantially similar to the Dove Beauty Sketches ad?

It does because of the description of human beings implicit by contrast in my favorite description of God: He who accomplishes all things according to the intentions of His will. The effects of human actions are mostly accidents, because we don’t know enough to know most of what we’re actually doing.

The Discovery Channel was trying to establish itself as the source of awesome, as being on team love-reality; much like Dove it’s trying to establish itself as an authority on what is interesting and awesome, and also as the source for these things. Yes, they’re doing these things, but that’s not all that they’re doing, because they’re human and so most of what they do they did not intend.

The goal was to present themselves as being the gateway to the awesomeness of the world, as well as having the brand identity of being on team awesome. The key distinction between this ad and the dove beauty sketches is that the latter used entirely artificial things—descriptions and a drawing—while the Discovery Channel ad uses real things—a picture of the earth from a satellite (the astronauts were, admittedly, obviously fake), real video of a great white shark flying out of the water as it tries to catch a seal, a picture of a real mummy, real video of lava and spiders, etc. While Dove was trying to sell a fiction as reality, the Discovery Channel ad has some reality in it.

The other key difference is that the Dove ad sets Dove up as the expert, while the Discovery Channel ad is largely supplicating itself to the grandeur of something else which existed before and will exist after the Discovery Channel.

Maybe the Discovery Channel is on Team The World is Awesome and maybe they’re just pretending, but if they are, then it is a case of hypocrisy being the tribute that vice pays to virtue. Either way, there is tribute being paid to virtue. And you don’t need to watch the Discovery Channel to appreciate that tribute to virtue.

I don’t watch it.

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