Master of Madison Avenue's domain.
When the creators of Seinfeld took a stand against the saccharine rituals of the sitcom—"no hugging, no learning"—one hoped the warranty would extend to reunion specials. So far, so good. Other than a meeting on Oprah last November, the Seinfeld gang has admirably resisted the urge to gather 'round the teleprompter and reminisce about "old times." But if you watch TV commercials, you could be forgiven for thinking we're in the middle of a Seinfeld tribute show. In a host of recent ads, Madison Avenue has exhumed Seinfeld's catchphrases and characters and put them to work selling product. Seinfeld is back, as shill rather than sitcom, lending its imprimatur to everything from luxury cars to light beer. It is the victim of what one of the show's former writers calls "sincere bastardization."
In a new Chrysler commercial, Jason Alexander (who played George Costanza) saunters up to a crusty CEO-type and squirms—invoking Costanza's obsequious relationship to New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner. Only instead of Steinbrenner, the commercial's CEO turns out to be … Lee Iacocca! Iacocca then disgorges one of Seinfeld's signature catchphrases: "yada, yada, yada." Another commercial, from the American Association of Retired Persons, has Ping Wu, a beloved bit player on Seinfeld, cloning himself a dozen times so he can better minister to the aged.
Coors Light, whose previous commercials focused on bikinied twins, has lately borrowed from Seinfeld's high-tone comedy. On a recent commercial, a woman says of her beer bottles, "They're plastic and they're spectacular." Seinfeld completists will recognize this as a twist on the coda of a 1993 episode called "The Implant." There, Teri Hatcher, playing Jerry's love interest, was questioned about the provenance of her shelfware. "They're real and they're spectacular," she huffed, before leaving Jerry to ponder his own domain.
Coors Light and Chrysler—not exactly the hallmarks of Seinfeld's Upper West Side milieu. Seinfeld writers haven't seen a dime in the way of royalties, and Peter Mehlman, who wrote "The Implant" and "The Yada Yada" episodes, is irked by the casual deployment of his best lines. "Coors Light, their commercials to me are like the lowest ebb," says Mehlman. "The way they use [the spectacular line] is so disgusting." He continues, "It makes you wonder about just how incredibly lazy ad writers have gotten. 'Use a Seinfeld thing! Let them write it!' That's 13 years ago that I wrote that episode."
Nor is 80-year-old Iacocca Mehlman's idea of Shecky Greene. "Lee Iacocca sounds like he has absolutely no clue as to what he's saying," Mehlman says. "You used to hear the rumor that the group Abba didn't know any English and was just fed the lines. That's how he sounds. 'What am I saying here, yada, yada, yada?' It's sad."
Seinfeld'stransition from Jerry Seinfeld's "garage band" to Madison Avenue staple was in some ways inevitable. Syndication and Curb Your Enthusiasm have encouraged Seinfeld worship to continue, burning one-liners into the brains of viewers—and one presumes the same thing goes for ad writers. To cite Seinfeld in a TV ad is to make common cause with the show's not-quite-middle-aged worldview; its childishly finicky tastes (Jerry and Co. did nothing if not scrutinize consumer goods); and, perhaps most important, some of the choicest demographics in television. Toward the end of its nine-year run, Seinfeld dominated among young urban professionals aged 24 to 54, the cherished group that advertisers claim to so desperately crave. And since Seinfeld's writers minted so many catchphrases (Peter Mehlman claims "sponge-worthy," "shrinkage," and "double-dip" as his own), one might also argue that, as with Shakespeare, a Seinfeld citation or two is unavoidable.
There's dormant cultural capital in Seinfeld, too. Robert Thompson, a Syracuse television historian, notes that the show's best lines still sizzle a decade later—they're "worth something" in monetary terms, but the show is "all dressed up with no place to go." Where it goes, then, is into TV commercials. Regurgitating a Seinfeld linehas become one of the easiest ways to flatter the intelligence and good taste of the TV viewer. This is true even when the Seinfeld reference comes alongside a mismatched product, like a Chrysler—Seinfeld serves to elevate the product's hipness, as Led Zeppelin music did for Cadillac commercials. Mehlman says, "It both points up how prominent Seinfeld was on the cultural landscape, and how no show in the last seven years has occupied any space on the cultural landscape."
Seinfeld in its day was rife with product placement: Snapple, Häagen-Dazs, Bosco, Entenmann's, and Junior Mints—all of them held up for the cast's ironic inspection. ("It's chocolate. It's peppermint. It's delicious!") Indeed, the meta-scrutiny of Seinfeld is well-suited to TV commercials. Seinfeld styled itself as a show about nothing. TV commercials are also about nothing. The last 20 years have seen the rise of the "non-ad ad," says St. Lawrence University sociologist Stephen Papson. Where ads once extolled the virtues of their product (20 percent more absorbent!), they are now more likely to praise lightly, with ironic distance, or never get around to praising at all. The Coors Light ad, which neglects to mention why you should buy the beer, is a good example. "Commercials had become so boring, so formulaic, so predictable, that people would leave unless you addressed those that are more literate," says Papson. It is a fair distillation of why one would want to allude to Seinfeld in a TV ad, not to mention how Seinfeld itself approached the situation comedy.
Finally, there is a subliminal element in Seinfeld ads. Those that merely cite a catchphrase are getting a kind of gratis celebrity endorsement. Those that use both catchphrase and actor, like Chrysler, are making an overt appeal to nostalgia. Seinfeld was one of the few sitcoms to exit to more or less universal acclaim. Holding out hope that Jerry and Co. will one day reunite is the favorite daydream of the Seinfeld addict (and the subject of nightly bedside prayers from NBC's Jeff Zucker). Note, ye faithful, the words of Larry David in the book Sein Off: "I also wanted to leave open the possibility that they could come back, that they could emerge from somewhere. Not that they would come back and do the series, but just to perhaps give people some hope." Won't happen. Shouldn't happen. But hope springs with every last yada, even when it's delivered by Lee Iacocca.
Bryan Curtis, Slate's "Middlebrow" columnist, writes for Grantland, Texas Monthly, and Newsweek. Follow him on Twitter.
Illustration by Charlie Powell.