Crashvertising, or “why I don’t watch exploitative shit like the X Factor”

Paul Raven @ 17-12-2010

It’s a tip o’ the hat to Chairman Bruce for bringing this to light: Crashvertising. I’m pretty sure it’s a subversive art prank rather than a real service, (although, as the months pass by in the weird weird world of the intertubes, I get less and less confident in saying that about… well, about anything). But the basic premise is this: you know how everyone rubbernecks at road accidents, right? Well, the folks behind Crashvertise will hang around by road accidents with banners and placards advertising your product or service, getting full commercial value out of that captive audience. Genius, right?

Part of me is reluctant to spell out the subtext, because I’m sure you can all see it anyway. But nonetheless I’m going to take this opportunity to climb onto one of my little soapboxes, because my circle of friends both online and off contain a depressingly large subset of people: people more than smart enough to see (and deplore) the subtext of Crashvertise, but seemingly unable to make the logical leap to identifying the grotesque exploitation of shows like The X Factor, America’s Got Talent and their ilk. This frustrates me greatly. They are the same thing.

The most common response I get from people when I call them out on watching those shows is along the lines of “oh, I know it’s dreadful, but it’s car-crash TV, isn’t it? You can’t help yourself but watch!” My counter-response has always been something remarkably similar to Crashvertise: sure, we all instinctively rubber-neck at car-crashes, but are you still morally comfortable with looking at car-crashes which have been staged with the express purpose of attracting your attention toward the billboards just behind them?

Oh, I can hear what you’re thinking. Believe me, I’ve had every possible counter-response to my counter-response that there is: “it’s just entertainment”, “no one’s forced into doing it”, “no one gets hurt”. Well, to tackle those three in order:

  • if The X Factor is just entertainment, then we should start encouraging and monetising bullying at schools and in workplaces rather than trying to prevent it (heck, it might help make up the funding shortfalls in the education systems, right?);
  • sure, no one is physically forced into doing it, but the cultural forces that encourage people to debase themselves so thoroughly for the chance to “become famous” (read as “be exploited even more publicly, thoroughly and systematically for the profit of others”) are insidious and incredibly powerful nonetheless, not to mention indicative of something deeply cruel, selfish and objectifying in the way we see the world;
  • and as for no one getting hurt, well, if the tabloid headlines chronicling the wrecks and burnouts on the hard shoulder of the fame highway aren’t stories of people being deeply hurt by a machine that makes money from selling their pain, I don’t know what they are.

“Oh, Paul, don’t take it so seriously; it’s just a bit of fun for Saturday night! I’m not harming anyone!” Well, I’m sorry, but yes, you are.

And the “I’m watching it ironically!” defence is bullshit, too; in fact, that annoys me even more than the people who believe it’s a genuine competition rather than a rigged open-air market research focus group. You know it’s fake, you know it’s scripted; you know, then, that everything you see is done with the intent of maximising viewer appeal, and that while the public votes themselves may not be rigged, the way the candidates are portrayed to the voting public most certainly is. You know that the poor schmucks who audition for the shows are either too ignorant to understand what they’re letting themselves in for, or foolish enough to gamble against the house and think they can win in the long run. And you still encourage that debasement and exploitation, simply by tuning in every week.

By watching these shows, “ironically” or otherwise, you are complicit in a form of public cruelty to other human beings. You see the ads that support the shows, see the brands that co-promote with them, watch performances by the ailing glove-puppet entertainers that are the only things left the big record labels know how to sell; your eyeballs not only validate that cruelty, but monetise it as well.

You are voluntarily staring at car crashes that were deliberately staged in front of billboards, and you are calling it entertainment.

Ballard would be proud of his prescience.

Rant over.

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4 Responses to “Crashvertising, or “why I don’t watch exploitative shit like the X Factor””

  1. Petey Monster says:

    I really enjoy the staging and arrangements of contemporary pop songs that offer occasional flashes of inspiration, and entertaining even when they’re a bit limp. Also watching Louis Walsh babbling on cocaine.

    Seriously, what’s wrong with just watching the show and enjoying it without guilt or ironic pretense?

  2. Paul Raven says:

    The argument above is the best one I have, Pete; if it doesn’t affect you, by all means enjoy away. I posted this less as an attempt to change the world than an attempt to sum up my side of an argument I seem to get into on Twitter a lot.

    Maybe I just have an odd conception of guilt and complicity, but I can’t help but see those types of shows as tawdry exploitation of the most unpleasant and hypocritical kind. Your mileage, as the clichĂ© goes, may vary. 🙂

  3. Your Obedient Serpent says:

    Paul, help me out here.

    I don’t watch any of these shows — I actually had to Google The X Factor to find out what it was — but my ex used to watch So You think You Can Dance, and I do occasionally catch snippets of some of the others while channel surfing or waiting for something else to start. I’ve also caught videos of exceptional acts on YouTube and other services.

    I … don’t see the car crash aspect. I see a bunch of talented amateurs, some of whom (like Paul Potts, the Cell Phone Opera Guy) actually manage to use these shows to “break out”. Sure, some are more talented than others, but the people I know who do watch these shows watch them in hopes of catching the exceptional acts.

    Maybe I’m experiencing sample bias. I don’t watch the shows, so all I see and hear about are the good bits. I know Simon Cowell has an often-parodied reputation for ripping into contestants; maybe there is more of a Gong Show element than I’ve been led to believe.

    This is not to say that the social commentary of Crashvertising is lost on me. Shows like Survivor, The Apprentice, The Biggest Loser — oh, yeah. Pure car crash.

  4. jt says:

    Serpent: While the end result of these competitions is usually one or two genuinely talented people getting their due, it’s pretty hard to not see the schadenfreude at work when you actually watch the show. I haven’t really watched any reality television since it got big in the early 2000s (forgive me, I was still in high school), but—at least regarding the singing competitions—in addition to the big talent payoff in the end, you have the immensely popular episodes at the beginning where they audition thousands of people and pretty much only show the ones that suck at singing and the ones that cry when they don’t make it, despite their talent. And yes, Simon Cowell tends to rip into at least half of the performers on any given episode, even toward the end of the season and usually even if they did well.

    And that’s just the singing competitions—arguably the least exploitative of the bunch, as you seem to understand.