Would you buy a new car from this novelist?

An Oldsmobile ad on the New York Times Web site links to a "special supplement" that showcases a collection of articles and reviews by high-brow writers and raises questions about using the same "content" for editorial and advertising purposes.

Published July 22, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

Steffie turned slightly, then muttered something in her sleep. It seemed important that I know what it was ... She uttered two clearly audible words, familiar and elusive at the same time, words that seemed to have a ritual meaning, part of a verbal spell or ecstatic chant. Toyota Celica.

A long moment passed before I realized this was the name of an automobile. The truth only amazed me more. The utterance was beautiful and mysterious, gold-shot with looming wonder ... Toyota Corolla, Toyota Celica, Toyota Cressida.

-- Don DeLillo, "White Noise," 1985

Don DeLillo is not the first man you'd expect to try to get you behind the wheel of a four-door sedan. A former advertising copywriter, DeLillo uses his training to create novels suffused with the American argot of sales culture, revealing the mythic and subconscious resonances behind our language of trademarks, jingles and adspeak. In "Underworld," the circular logo on a pack of Lucky Strikes cigarettes becomes an atomic bull's-eye, symbolizing 50 years of cold-war dread. Even when appreciating the smooth ride of a Lexus, DeLillo raises an Eliot-esque image of deathly antisepsis: "This is a car assembled in a work area that's completely free of human presence. Not a spot of mortal sweat ... Hollow bodies coming in endless sequence."

Not exactly "See the USA in your Chevrolet," that. So it was a little odd to find DeLillo's somber mug paired with the steely grille of the 1998 Oldsmobile Intrigue in a banner ad atop the New York Times' Web site one morning. But in fact DeLillo, whose works deal with shadowy American figures from Lee Harvey Oswald to J. Edgar Hoover, is perfectly at home in what may be the first major advertising campaign to be built around the theme of paranoia -- and which, appropriately, enfolds a few smoke-shrouded dealings and cloak-and-dagger advertorial alliances of its own.

The banner ad ("Exploring the Underworld of Don DeLillo") links to Authors of Intrigue, a literary "special supplement" to the Times' Web site, sponsored by Oldsmobile, that includes essays, interviews and book reviews on DeLillo (and now the currently featured spy author John Le Carré). Like the Intrigue's ubiquitous TV ads that cross-promote the car and "The X-Files" movie, the site is part of a massive campaign to associate Olds' rather bland sedan with mystery and skullduggery.

The site is not something so crass as a celebrity endorsement. Better, and cheaper, it simply allows Oldsmobile instant association with an artist who appeals to a moneyed, educated readership, under the high-minded pretext of putting up a literary fan site.

And they say American automakers aren't concerned about conserving resources. Au contraire: Even more efficient, Olds, unlike other "special supplement" producers, didn't have to hire hacks to produce copy for its faux lit-zine -- the pieces are actual New York Times articles, culled straight from the archives of the august Book Review. Indeed, all the material, plus a Terry Gross interview and some other multimedia treats, is already available to Web surfers for free through the DeLillo page at the NYT Book Review site, which is essentially identical to Authors of Intrigue, except for Olds' added, hokey graphics (and links to Intrigue's even hokier corporate site).

You heard right: It's lease time at the NYT Book Review, and they're ready to deal! The Intrigue's vaunted ergonomics notwithstanding, the real engineering coup here is the Times' use of the Web, and of the paper's hammerlock on electronic reprint rights, to convert literary criticism into ad copy. The flexibility of Web publishing effectively allows the Times to use the same material -- literally, the same files on its Web site -- simultaneously as editorial content and business product. Accessed one way, the interviews and reviews are part of the free, objective archives of the Paper of Record; accessed another and tricked up with a banner ad, they become the door to the
factory showroom.

Electronic reprint rights controversies have generally focused on the boring eternal verity of writers getting screwed out of money, but far more interesting is the possibility that a newspaper's contributors can later be reincarnated as shills. Little did critic Vince Passaro know, commenting in a 1991 Times article about DeLillo's "intriguing absence from the usual authorial rolls," that he had just written a placement for a product that did not yet exist.

This is just one of a number of mini ethical dilemmas new media make possible (like the practice of linking product reviews to business Web sites) and the Times seems to be following what is becoming the publishers' standard response script -- when in doubt about an advertorial practice, just call it a "new business model": You get to sound visionary and pocket the cash to boot.

Granted, it's hard to imagine that the deal actually makes sense for anyone besides the Times. The customers you can win with the resistable combo of NYT Book Review pieces and slow-loading advertising pages would probably fit in the Intrigue's trunk. Still, such high-class tie-ins are attractive as part of overall brand snootification strategies -- take the print ads for the Cadillac Catera, which lift the typography and layout of the New Yorker's "Shouts and Murmurs" page.

Far higher in profile have been the television ads relentlessly plugging the Intrigue along with Fox's "X-Files" movie, a TV campaign that has featured Syndicate-esque machinations of its own. Among the features of the co-branding assault (free movie tickets with each test drive, etc.) was a 10-city "X-Files" expo tour in the spring, with Intrigue as a "stealth sponsor"; according to Advertising Age, Fox News directed its local affiliates to "broadcast morning shows or weather reports from the venues."

I was hardly surprised, then, to see Mulder and Scully driving an Intrigue in the movie, a ham-handed product placement climaxing as the FBI agents race a freight train toward a desert compound run by alien collaborators. The scene is shot from overhead in what is by now an auto-ad cliché -- the vehicle hurtles through a sunbaked vista, throwing off billowing clouds of dust and exhaust and individualism and pheromones. Even I thought the similarity to a commercial was too blatant to be intentional -- until, that is, I checked out the Intrigue Web site, which includes a 30-second TV spot that almost perfectly reprises the scene. (In the commercial, an Intrigue races to a drive-in theater playing "The X-Files," while the soundtrack plays freight-train noises and the theater entrance explodes apropos of nothing.) It's a shame Chris Carter decided finally not to have Mulder and Scully get busy on the big screen; Olds must have lobbied hard for a "Titanic"-style back-seat consummation.

You don't have to be Oliver Stone for all this to send you into a spiral of imaginary connections: Am I looking at a news show or a commercial? A commercial or a movie? The New York Times or an Olds dealership?

That's a more appropriate response than you might think, considering how enthusiastically the Intrigue campaign embraces the theme of post-Cold War paranoia, from the name of the car to the "X-Files" tie-in to the association with the spooky likes of Le Carr&#233 and DeLillo. For one of the most classically dull automakers in the country to cash in on the aesthetic of conspiracy ("No one has seen the whole picture -- until now," reads one ad) suggests that black-helicopter theorizing has become not merely widespread but dull -- another middle-class value shared by land yacht-driving burghers and readers of staid book-review tabloids. Randy Weaver, c'est nous.

Maybe it's only surprising that it took so long for an automaker to mainstream this kind of message. Consider, after all, how much common ground your typical light-truck ad shares with your typical right-wing militia creed -- the delegation of power to the individual, the antipathy for high-density urban areas, the love of the American West, the need for powerful systems of personal defense. And once you've gotten used to the idea of corporate-planted advertorials on the evening news and of paying eight bucks to watch car commercials on the big screen, how great a leap is it to believing that the government is covering up pacts with aliens?

We're accustomed to hearing such dark tales from Pynchons and DeLillos, but it's easy to write that off as postmodern, ivory-tower gamesmanship coming from them. It's when you hear it from General Motors' gravel-throated voice, calling you from the shadows of a pitch-black parking garage, that you pay attention. This is not your father's Oldsmobile ad, the Intrigue campaign whispers. This is not your father's constitutional republic.

By James Poniewozik

James Poniewozik is a Time magazine columnist on TV and media.

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