If you are of a certain age and grew up within rabbit-ears range of New York, and you heard last week the news that the pioneering off-price clothier Syms was bankrupt, one phrase bubbled up from your mind: “An Educated Consumer Is Our Best Customer.” For decades, that fantastically square tagline, delivered in Sy Syms’s Brooklynese baritone, provided the kicker to his endearingly low-tech TV commercials. In the ads, Sy (in later years joined by his daughter Marcy) sat before a dark backdrop, telling you exactly how much less that John Weitz blazer would cost if you bought it from him. It was an oddly resonant catchphrase, that “educated consumer,” perfectly pitched to the ear of the upper-middlebrow shopper whose approach to life included a Consumer Reports subscription and a gently used Volvo. But the best part was that it was all ours, a password that only natives could know.
Watching afternoon cartoons and reruns on Channel 11 (slogan: “11 Alive!”) brought exposure to a whopping dose of superb cheeseball advertising like this (channels 5 and 9 carried their share, too). You saw the ads a thousand times, since the smallish companies paying for them had neither the money nor the need for a new campaign every year. Crazy Eddie’s prices were in-sane. The Milford Plaza, the Lulla-Buy of Broadway, enticed theatergoers into its budget-priced, horrifying hotel rooms. Two Guys and Korvette’s competed to offer the lowest prices for toasters and cameras. And, of course, there was that lady from the Ritz Thrift Shop (“Oh! Thank you!”), whose tight early-seventies bouffant lingered on into the Internet era.
You’d think that thousands of basic-cable channels would mean that cheap local ads would be flourishing. In smaller markets, they may well be. But in New York, the form is on its way out, a victim of increasing audience sophistication, the slicker production that technology has brought, and the assault on homegrown retail by national chains. New York 1 is replete with 30-second spots for the mattress chain Sleepy’s, for example. They are competent, clean-looking, and no fun at all.
The real difference, though, is not in the ads but in us. Today’s TV culture is fragmented. To grow up in New York (or anywhere) now is to consume media from a thousand different sources, rather than experiencing local programming in common. In place of the twenty-year cohort from which everyone remembers Crazy Eddie, the new microgenerations each have a brief YouTube meme of their own, the double rainbow giving way to the honey badger, and on and on.
There’s hope, though, for connoisseurs of terrible local commercials. A Connecticut concern called Bob’s Discount Furniture has been airing a series of spots that have many of the hallmarks of 11 Alive’s golden era: The spokesman is the owner of the business, he’s sort of a shouty guy, and the camerawork and staging look like they were done by junior-high kids. Apparently, though, they play the same ads up in Boston. Knowing that we have to share their amateurish pleasures takes the joy out of it.
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