Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Interpreting What You See

A short while ago, I stumbled upon one of those TV shows about commercials and advertisements whilst zapping. I do not remember the name of the show, sadly, but it is the kind where they show commercials and let a few commentators (presumably from within the ad industry; although only referenced by name and company name, so I will not swear to that) discuss the commercials in terms of context and how they deliver their messages, etc.

In this particular episode, the following infomercial on speed limits, "It's 30 for a Reason", was included:

The commentators were not entirely convinced by the effectiveness of the piece, arguing that its visceral nature cruised the thin line where a viewer might change the channel to avoid the unpleasant imagery. This is a point of view I can definitely understand and sympathise with. While I personally think that the piece tells the information in a chillingly effective manner, there is no arguing against the fact that that effectiveness will be entirely lost if people do not watch the piece.

However, what really troubled me was when one of the commentators, who had said a lot of sensible things vis-a-vis the piece's effectiveness, suddenly added something along the line of "and then there's the question of why the little girl would be sitting in the middle of the road." At first I was a bit stunned, not quite getting what she was getting at. But then it hit me. This commentator failed to read the piece properly. Instead of subtracting the 10 mph and moving the girl from the end position of "Hit me at 40 and there's an 80% chance that I'm dead" to the end position of "Hit me at 30 and there's an 80% chance that I'm alive", in her reading, she moved the girl from the original end position to an assumed starting point – that is, before the accident.

Clearly the whole point of the piece is to place two opposing end results against one another; that is, to show the viewer the effect of a lessened impact at a lower speed. This is further emphasised by the juxtaposed phrases "Hit me at 40 and there's an 80% chance that I'm dead" and "Hit me at 30 and there's an 80% chance that I'm alive", both conveniently placed alongside the relevant effect and also nicely framing the piece as a whole.

Misreading this sequence, as the commentator did, is problematic at best, and while such a misreading may be forgiven if done by a casual viewer and amateur, I find myself less willing to forgive it when performed by a professional.

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