The Gruen Transfer

Posted: May 28, 2008 in Critical Hit
Tags: , , , ,

I look forward to Wednesday night on the ABC – in fact, it’s the only night I plan on watching actual broadcast content. The Young Inventors, Spicks and Specks, The IT Crowd and The Armstrong and Miller Show are all great fun, and given the premise of going backstage with advertising experts, The Gruen Transfer seemed like a promising addition to the line-up.

In hindsight, Will Anderson should have set alarm bells ringing. As much as I loved The Glass House, Dave Hughes and a series of witty guests carried that show, because Young Master Billy, as his abysmal performance at this year’s Melbourne Comedy Festival made apparent, is ratshit without an autocue and some interesting sidekicks.

Which leads us to the advertising representatives who, it seems, will make up the weekly panel. It’s worth noting the apparent effort at diversity in their ranks: Dee, the sole woman, comes off as creative-by-nature, cynical-by-necessity, and easily the most intelligent and well-adjusted participant. Granted, however, this is not tricky when compared to her fellow marketeers. Russell has the self-contradicting, overly-enthusiastic sheen of a man suddenly forced to rationalise ethical issues he hasn’t actually thought about. Todd appeared genuinely interested in the psychology and studies behind why advertising works, but took a credibility hit from being paired with Dan, the vile, sleazy epitome of corporate selling, whose cringeworthy humour left the audience wincing and Will Anderson with a glazed, almost manic desperation to change topic.

The humour of The Gruen Transfer  was hard to pinpoint: watching advertising high-flyers hold forth on how to market beer (or, at one point, whale meat) held an awful fascination, because none of the panel seemed to realise that their willingness to do so, rather than any jokes they might make, was what people had shown up to laugh at. Anderson himself was uncertain of which side to take, alternately egging on the advertisers and asking sharp questions of them. But this only achieved awkwardness: laughing with the panel alienated the audience, while laughing at them provoked unease. Having tuned in to watch marketing practices exposed as immoral wank and their practitioners called scum, I maintain the latter tactic is the most viable means of success, but it’s undoubtably difficult to make four professionals show up for a weekly ridiculing of their chosen industry.

Ultimately, The Gruen Transfer seems like an insupportable concept. As long as it remains unable to strike a working balance between self-pity, mockery and flagellation, it will act as a discomforting metaphor for society’s relationship with advertising: hate-love, with lashings of smug immorality, ignorance and guilt.   

  1. Tim says:

    To just come right out and say it: I think your last sentence describes this post better than the show.

    I will come out and say straight up that I don’t think The Gruen Transfer was as good as I was hoping, but I think the conclusions you have jumped to require far more than 30 minutes to make.

    Wil Anderson may not have been good when you saw him live, but when I did, he was great, and when he was on the radio, he was great. He was certainly a damn sight better than Corinne Grant.

    Your judgement of the panel is essentially sexist, so let me contribute my own. The only reason the woman came off as vaguely intelligent was because she said bugger all throughout the night.

    Russell clearly didn’t get the whole ‘tv’ thing, but I think he made the best of it. Todd was great, I think he brought all the class and intelligence the panel had, and even his pairing with the more vulgar Dan didn’t damage what he had to say.

    Yes, Dan was vulgar, he was also the funniest of the 4 member panel, and really, people want the vulgar jokes – Wil Anderson certainly isn’t doing this for a serious commentary on advertising. You can’t talk about ‘head’ seriously on a show like that, and if Wil was bewildered, I daresay it was because his jokes were stolen.

    Next, I would disagree that these people were unaware that the audience might be laughing at them. I’d question that statement for starters – just their being involved in the industry doesn’t necessarily make them stupid and evil like the advertising people that were discussed. And even if it did, they wouldn’t be there if they weren’t at least on some level aware of this, and able to laugh about it.

    The sheer cheese of the slogans the panel produced would suggest that they are well aware of what they’re doing, and are perfectly at ease with their job and with public reactions to their work.

    Finally, I just want to say that I didn’t think this held a candle to the better episodes of Good News Week, or Enough Rope or The Glass House…but I don’t think their first episode necessarily would have either.

    It needs a couple more episodes before I can agree on any of these points, or find others to justify such a venom filled lashing of a program.

  2. fozmeadows says:

    I ended up coming down a lot harder in this review than in the discussion which preceeded it. Improvement isn’t unattainable, true, but I’m not convinced that the ways in which it needs to improve are viable for broadcast. It was marketed (irony) as an expose of advertising fluff, and ended up somewhere between journalism and strained comedy. Point being, I don’t think this happened accidentally: to go as hard as was promised in the promos, Anderson would have really had to make his panel sqiurm.

    As to Dan, Dee, Todd and Russell being able to laugh at themselves – I’ve worked in advertising. Albeit not for long, but long enough to grasp the basic principle, which is: the entirety of your job is the deceptive promotion of banal product. Either you revel in it, which makes you a wanker, or every day contains at least one moment of blinding self-mockery. The joke it at your expense, which means you can never laugh whole-heartedly; rather, you’re trying to stave off awkwardness.

    As for gender bias, I’m not saying Dee was the most well-adjusted because she was the only woman. Perhaps it was, like you say, simply because she had the sense to keep quiet. Dan’s jokes – hey, I love American Dad, which has said far worse things than he did, but it was awful because of the fact that he relished it.

    Anyway – once I’d turned off the TV, the whole thing just made me uncomfortable. I was venemous, and you’re fine to disagree, but unless next week pulls a spectacular reversal, I doubt my position will alter overmuch.

  3. R.W. says:

    I’m sorry I must disagree with you. That woman Dee was a typically sarcastic Aussie woman trying to out bloke the blokes.
    The witless explanation she gave ( without irony) as to why there are always 4 guys in a beer commercial was an outrageous insight into the very small minds of agency creative types.
    One guy is a looser, two are Gay (like being Gay is something bad) couldn’t explain three and told us that four was the happy number and again couldn’t explain why.
    I paraphrase of course but that statement of hers should be enough for all who watched this pointless show as to why Australian advertising is as bad as it is. Her comments were as sexist and as patronising as the stupidest guy in the group.
    Her other memorable comment when shown a typically obtuse beer commercial she labelled it an expensive wank and (chuckled at her own utterance) didn’t explain any more.
    At least her self contradicting side kick attempted to explain why it worked.
    As you say her liberal use of the word bugger only emphasised her sexist attitudes when it came to scrapping a laugh at the bottom of the barrel.
    Two of the 3 men actually attempted to communicate what was working or not working in the commercials being discussed.
    On the whole these people were inept at conveying any ideas clearly. Too clever by half and moronically laughing at their own humourless quips. The whale meat add which won the competition was the only time the show worked in any way at all as a comment on how fickle the industry can be and they all knew it too. The rival prawn idea was just an embarrassment and everyone couldn’t wait for the thing to finish.
    I thought the show deservedly fell flat on it’s face. Will Anderson actually kept the mood from turning seriously sour with that pack of black holes in one place.
    I doubt if it lasts a season.

  4. fozmeadows says:

    Well, apart from that nauseatingly positive-to-the-extent-of-being-paid-for review in the Age, nobody I’ve spoken to thinks it worked, although as evidenced here, everyone has a different view as to why. Maybe the concept would’ve worked better as a mini-doco series, as opposed to an ongoing panel show? I guess we’ll all have to wait and see.

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