Ad Report Card: A Cable Channel’s Road Show

The History Channel's mobile museum
The History Channel’s mobile museum

Last week a major cable convention was held here in New Orleans, which meant that all sorts of important industry bigwigs were around. It also meant a lot of carefully targeted promotional efforts—private parties with celebrity appearances, and so on. One or two marketing stunts even reached beyond the target audience of conventioneers to, you know, regular people. And thus I had an opportunity to view an interesting, or at least unusual, ad for the History Channel. Usually this is the part where I tell you where to click to see the TV spot in question—but this advertisement was not on TV.

Packin' 'em in: exhibits inside the Time Machine
Packin’ ‘em in: exhibits inside the Time Machine

The Ad: This ad was parked by the Aquarium of the Americas, near the big downtown convention center. It was a truck—a big rig, with “Time Machine” painted on the side and short ramps leading to an entrance and an exit on opposite ends of the trailer. Inside, the trailer had been made over into a small climate-controlled “museum,” its many exhibits packed chockablock into the obviously limited space. It was a truckload o’ history! All sorts of history-themed text and images covered the walls, assorted “artifacts” rested in Plexiglas boxes. There were push-button quiz displays. There was a slightly battered book resting open for my perusal like something out of a rare-documents collection. (It was actually the recent best seller Founding Brothers, apparently the basis of a tie-in show.) There were videos. Not surprisingly, there wasn’t much depth to all this, but the “Time Machine” covered a lot of territory, with nods to everything from Ben Franklin to the Empire State Building, the Great Wall of China to Silly Putty, baseball to the Hoover Dam.

Marilyn Monroe's contribution to history
Marilyn Monroe’s contribution to history

The Experience: Apparently this museum is very mobile, keeping to the road for many months on end, showing up wherever appropriate crowds might be gathering; the driver (who essentially doubles as the museum’s full staff) told me that after his stint in New Orleans, he was headed for Little Rock, Ark. Perhaps partly because of all this motion, some wear and tear can be expected. Those push-button quizzes? One of the three stations wasn’t working. There were also some touch-screen interactive displays—but those, too, were out of whack. On the other hand, I had been pretty skeptical about the whole museum-in-a-truck idea, but there was more functioning gewgaw distraction than I expected. I spent a good 10 or 15 minutes skimming the displays. Admittedly, some of what I enjoyed was the weird mishmash of imagery (a gas mask loomed right behind Marilyn Monroe’s billowing skirt) and the somewhat eclectic selection of, uh, artifacts (how did Silly Putty manage to make it into this CliffsNotes version of history, anyway?). In any case I was amused—and even 10 minutes is a lot more time than I typically spend experiencing a single ad.

History lite
History lite

The message: And that’s the point of this kind of marketing, or advertainment, or whatever you want to call it—to offer you some form of amusing diversion in exchange for your total brand immersion. By the exit to the “Time Machine” is a large selection of branded postcards and a History Channel programming brochure (all of this is free, obviously), as well as a video loop of the network’s personalities, or hosts, or whatever they are, beaming about the joy of history, and so on.

The open question is whether the “Time Machine” does much to improve the perception of the History Channel, which is often written off as essentially the History Lite Channel—a lot of thin, gimmicky documentaries masquerading as educational fare. The brochure I picked up touted a show on “First Mothers,” in which we “meet the mothers of some of our most influential presidents,” and a look at the history of hockey; last night the channel ran three hours of World War II in Color, described as “a fresh look at WWII, using a new source of material—color film!” The scattershot contents of the “Time Machine” basically reinforce this image, as did the interactive quiz. (Example question: Did George Washington serve as president for four years or eight?) But perhaps the approach makes history seem less intimidating and obviously more appealing to the various children who haul their parents into the big truck.

All of which is to say that the notion of a history-packed rig traveling around the country like some sort of carnival attraction, with Benjamin Franklin filling in for the bearded lady or the miniature horse, is not so incongruous as it might seem. If the whole idea of the History Channel is to turn the idea of the past into a pop diversion, then why not advertise it this way?


Update: Regarding last week’s column  on the return of “Harry and Louise” in opposition to anti-cloning legislation, two notes. One is that I recommend the two articles in the June issue of the Atlantic Monthly (not yet online) on the subject of therapeutic cloning, which is at the heart of the complicated debate that last week’s ads reduced to foolish slogans. Also, the Kaiser Family Foundation has posted its own analyses both of the spots I wrote about and of the counterfoolishness of the “Harriet and Louis” ads.