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The Difference Between American and Canadian TV Commercials

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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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