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Bill Mann


The Difference Between American and Canadian TV Commercials

Posted: 08/13/2013 8:17 am

Want to know one quick way to tell how different Canada is from the U.S.?

It won't take long. Just watch a few TV commercials. They speak volumes.

These days, it seems impossible to sell anything on U.S. TV networks without the use of explosions, interpersonal violence, gratuitous sex, car wrecks, or gunplay. It's almost a flip image of Canadian TV.

This is an area I know well, having worked for over 20 years as the TV critic at three major U.S. newspapers before becoming the Canada columnist for Dow Jones' MarketWatch.com website.

So, let me ask you: Why would a guy being karate-kicked into a dryer in a laundromat have anything to do with selling candy bars? You might want to direct that question to the ad geniuses at the U.S. agency who came up with the idea.

Or, do you really need two bratty kids gratuitously smashing furniture while a runaway car takes out their front fence to sell insurance?

Or, why does a current commercial for Hot Pockets look more like a porn movie, with an attractive, overly cosmeticized model making highly suggestive tongue gestures while casting a come-hither look at the camera?

Do you really need a threatening phrase like, "I'm gonna hunt you down!" to sell a mobile phone?

If the U.S. is a consumer-driven culture -- and it assuredly is -- it's made up of consumers who appear to make key buying decisions on the basis of physical attributes and mayhem.

And we haven't even mentioned the carnage routinely seen on U.S. TV in movie ads, which inevitably involve major gunplay, bloodletting and massive property destruction.

Watching Canadian TV commercials provides blessed relief to this American who lives near the Canadian border. I watch Canadian TV daily.

On much of Canadian TV, you see elements sadly lacking on American spots: humour, whimsy, subtlety, cleverness, intelligence.

Since most Canadians get U.S. channels through their cable or satellite provides, they probably already know the stark difference in the way the two countries advertise products.

Here in the U.S., a much more competitive, dog-eat-dog society, one uses the hard sell to reach an audience of hard people.

When I point out the difference to friends here in the Seattle area, they're usually surprised -- and often pleased -- with the relative difference in the two countries' TV commercials.

I've been doing a bit of amateur comparative sociology about this subject the past couple of years.

Having lived in Canada, I got hooked years ago on Hockey Night in Canada when I was a sportswriter for a Montreal daily. To me, it's the best place to watch Canada's national game. I often watch in French. (Go Habs!)

Yes, even with Don Cherry. ESPECIALLY because of uber-bloviator Don Cherry, who dresses like a bouncer in Vegas. (I tune in every week partly to see whose couch or drapes, or foreign flags have died to make his latest wardrobe.)

On ESPN and other American sports networks, if you're going to see violent and crude commercials, this is the place.

But the CBC's sportscast ads are remarkably restrained compared to those on U.S. sports networks.

I've been watching the NHL on CBC for the past two years with an American friend, a die-hard NHL fan. I once asked him, "Notice the difference between this and U.S. TV? Especially the commercials?"

He not only noticed it, he appreciates it.

So, I've made a Canada convert: Largely because the more pleasant ads, he now wants to watch the NHL on CBC instead.

If you want a microcosm of what's wrong with the U.S. -- and what's right with Canada -- you couldn't find a better place to look than by watching their TV commercials.

Seeing them, it's painfully obvious the U.S. is a more violent society.

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  • Budweiser: Flash Fans

    Arguably the most buzzworthy Canadian commercial of the year, this Budweiser spot that aired on Canadian stations during SuperBowl XLVI featured two Toronto-area amateur league hockey teams who were told they were being filmed for a documentary. Instead, the filmmakers got a flash mob to show up to the game, dressed in team colours, to throw confetti and cheer on the local teams. The end result was an ad that convincingly looked like a highlight reel from an NHL game. The video went viral in the U.S. and around the world.

  • Whistler Film Festival: Princess (GRAPHIC LANGUAGE)

    Made by Vancouver's Dare agency, this promo for the Whistler Film Festival looks like a genuine Pixar CGI cartoon, right up until the end, when the video takes a seriously gangsta turn....

  • Canadian Paralympic Committee: Unstoppable

    Made for the 2012 Paralympic Games, this ad features a disabled runner making his way past wheelchairs, emergency vehicles and an accident scene, before breaking away into a fast run. It's an inspiring metaphor for people's ability to overcome challenges, and one of HuffPost's most totally favourite ads of the year.

  • Zellers: Zeddy Gets Laid Off

    Zellers is going out of business, but at least it's doing it with humour. In this ad, one of a series on the same theme, store mascot Zeddy is driven out into the woods and informed his services are no longer needed.

  • Shaw: Car Chase

    This ad for Shaw Cable's on-demand movie service has viewers strapped into the middle of high-octane action sequences. A silly but noticeable way to get the message across that your movie service puts the audience "in the heart of the action."

  • Heart & Stroke Foundation: The Undeading

    Is receiving CPR like becoming a zombie? We certainly hope not, but that's the amusing premise of this Heart & Stroke Foundation public service video, which shows a woman suffering a heart attack during a zombie invasion, only to be revived by the zombies ... and then attacked by them again. We'll overlook the conceptual confusion here and applaud the ad's eye-catching production values and the useful tidbits about carrying out CPR.

  • Maynards Mouth Chase: Fishing

    Candy maker Maynards produced a series of ads called "Mouth Chase" in which a man in a mouth costume chases people in various random situations. The ads combine intentionally low-quality amateurish video with a dramatic, cinematic soundtrack to produce a uniquely bizarre effect.

  • Astral: In Between Odds

    Astral Media wanted to show off its efforts to support the Canadian film and TV industry, so they made this mockumentary featuring a filmmaker who is suffering from an unfortunately flattened nose due to doors being repeatedly closed in his face. A subtle bit of humour, but it gets the point across.


    This intense, at times disturbing ad made for the non-profit group War Child Canada shows a battle breaking out in some unidentified African civil war. As the battle rages, gun clips turn into crayons and bullets into bubbles. "Where childhood thrives, war does not," the ad concludes. Powerful stuff.

  • Sick Kids Hospital: Pain Squad

    This promo video outlines how Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children managed to get child cancer patients to keep track of their treatment-related pain. The hospital built an app called "Pain Squad" that "recruits" kids into becoming part of "a special police force dedicated to hunting down pain." As far as promo videos go, it doesn't get much more touching than this.

  • McDonald's: Our Food, Your Questions

    McDonald's Canada deserves kudos for coming up with a unique approach to selling its product this year: Telling customers the truth about it. The fast food chain ran a series of online and TV ads this year, answering challenging questions from customers. In this video, McDonald's explains why their hamburgers look a lot better in ads than they do in real life.

  • Tourism Commission: Canada Shared by Canadians

    The Canadian Tourism Commission issued a call-out to the public to send them their video footage of Canada. They took the submissions and boiled them down to these two minutes of awesomeness. Canada has never looked better, or more fun.


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