Thursday, September 29, 2005UPDATE: Bibliofuture has posted the commercial on YouTube.
One chilly autumn morning in 1996, during my first rusty days as a news-video engineer at Channel 5 in Plattsburgh (before I became a commercial producer), I watched a most unusual TV spot on our large studio monitors. It started as a nightmarish urban scenario, where grimy citizens drag their disabled vehicles by torchlight into a distant urban Dante's Inferno; all darkness and storm, set to a keening baritone opera soundtrack. Where were these poor, wretched people [shades of Katrina refu...er...evacuees] going?
They were going to the LIBRARIA - a fearsome fortress guarded by attacking lion statues, where Dickensian children read Paradise Lost as red-jacketed stormtroopers goosestep and shush the already-silent patrons.
They were also going to the BANQ, where an endless queue of customers trails out the door, waiting for a mummified teller to stamp their deposit slip. A evil, portly security guard gives a deep villainous laugh as a young woman ages before our eyes, while a large spider crawls across the teller's motionless hand.
The camera pulls back from this tableau into a lightning-lit skyscraper shaped like a battleship superstructure, further and further until the dark city retreats into a sunny, peaceful meadow. Dissolve to a hypercolorful home interior, with a Packard-Bell desktop computer ready to save you a fruitless trip into Hell. The tagline asks, "Wouldn't You Rather Be At Home?" as the Intel Inside!™ chime plays. [See screenshots of the commercial on this Millard Sheets Library page]
The ad was eerie, over-the-top - and downright weird. I loved it. I never saw the full 60-second version again (only cut-down 30-second spots), but I did manage to capture bits and pieces on 1-inch commercial videotape and dub them down to VHS. Every now and then, I pulled the tape from my archives and watched it when I needed a dose of übergloom.
Little did I know that these commercials had sparked a miniature tumult at the time of their release, ranging from people who felt the PB ads showed a damagingly negative view of public libraries, to those who felt they would inspire people to use computers to withdraw from society, becoming pasty-faced agoraphobes who interact with the world solely behind keyboards and computer screens. Ahem. Some just thought the ads were awful, period.
Nearly ten years later, we actually do live in a world where online banking and information access are routine, and technologies these ads never imagined are now on the horizon. (Remember the earlier and cheerier 1990's AT&T adverts that fantasized an imaginative technofuture - with the punchline, "You Will"?) We may have traded some of the grinding effort of trips to Hell for new risks like spammers, phishers and identity thieves - but the ease with which we can now accomplish many routine chores electronically seems miraculous. However, with this ease of access comes a price: information may cost less to acquire in some ways, but at the price of becoming less "free."
Still, I think it's fascinating to look back at these ads' imagery, just to analyze how their promises and fears of the coming Information Age have played out so far. A few years ago, I found little or no online information on the ads. Now there seems to a host of writing and references to those 1996 M&C Saatchi spots; I'm glad to see others remember them as well, if not always so fondly. You can even watch them for yourself in QuickTime or .avi format courtesy of digital-age commentator Karen Coyle, who shares her insights on the subtexts of the 1996 Packard-Bell campaign in her article, "Home Alone."