Truth in advertising

Madison Avenue loves self-referential ads, sort of.

By James Poniewozik
January 27, 1999 1:00AM (UTC)
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The Gregorian calendar notwithstanding, America's real New Year's Day
falls on Sunday: the harvest festival when, with an ancient ritual of bloodletting, we
welcome and give thanks for the arrival of our culture's staple crop,
advertising. And as we prepare to turn over a new marketing calendar,
it's clear from the recent past that one thing is definitely out in the
ad biz: ads.

At least, that's the impression one gets from the slew of reality-,
authenticity- and self-criticism-based ads that, in their zeal to bare
the mechanics and wiles of Madison Avenue, seem like they were
storyboarded by media-studies professors. Sprite has athletes ridiculing
athlete endorsements; Diesel jeans pictures a creepy consumer-fascist
world of propaganda films and mock ads; J.C. Penney's Arizona jeans TV
ads show kids telling advertisers, "Stop telling us what's cool" (a
campaign that must have sprung from the embittered pen of a Gen-X
copywriter once forced to go to school in Plain Pockets); hipsters in
Levi's new TV and print series hold forth for the camera on "What's
True"; a model in a Moschino boutique ad carries a
surgeon-general's-style warning: "I am a consenting part of the fashion


Some play the truth card less dexterously than others, of course:
Winston cigarettes' "No Bull" series, the reality-ad campaign best
suited to raise conniptions among advertising's intellectual critics,
promotes "100-percent additive-free" Winstons as an island of honesty in
a world of BS. "If only all ads were as honest as this," one of them
reads; the art shows a lung cancer victim smoking a cigarette through
his tracheotomy tube (oh, sorry! actually it shows a fat man squeezed
into a pair of jeans). But at least Winston's clearly validated tickets
to hell play by the old rules of ad crit -- they're a blatant, cynical
effort by a mammoth company to sell death. The other, more clever campaigns
pose a more frustrating question: Can you celebrate a product, or
consumer culture, while critiquing the means used to sell it?

The short answer, from the anti-addies, is: No. The long answer is:
No, and wipe that damn smirk off your face. In the January Harper's,
novelist Jonathan Dee neatly represents current anti-ad dogma in an
essay on the Clio Awards, heavily indebted to corporate-cooptation
screed "The
Conquest of Cool"
by Baffler editor Thomas Frank. Dee likens today's
ads to the art of totalitarian states: "Commercials' dominant aesthetic
quality -- humor -- is the last thing we tend to associate with
officially sanctioned art under Stalin or Hitler or Mao," he writes.
(For any good anti-ad partisan the word "humor" leads naturally to the
subject of state-sanctioned mass murder.) "But the rise of humor,
especially self-deprecating humor, [italics added] in
advertisements goes hand in hand with what ... Frank has established as
advertising's (and capitalism's) great achievement in the years since
the 1960s: incorporating the idea of dissent from the doctrine of
consumption into the doctrine itself."

But critiques like Dee's don't account for the genuine scorn
that some such ads have generated in the mainstream advertising
community -- in particular, the daring, self-referential "Dick" campaign for
Miller Lite beer. This 1997-98 campaign, presented as the work of
"Dick," an advertising "genius" shown in a thick-sideburned yearbook
photo, played off stereotypical beer-ad promises of sex and charisma,
associating Lite with ugly, Dadaist images: fat, sloppy drinkers, a
pitchman licking a Lite bottle in gruesome close-up.


By Dee's logic, the Madison Avenue Politburo must have given "Dick"
creator Fallon-McElligott four big red stars for its opus of
self-deprecation. But in fact the campaign inspired an almost moral
backlash in the industry press for pissing on the grave of Lite's revered
"Tastes Great, Less Filling" ads, and flat-out glee when Miller dropped
the flagging campaign last fall. Ad Age ran Miller's decision as its
lead story, and commentators practically called for Fallon-McElligott's
heads. "Heads should roll," wrote Rance Crain in the Nov. 30 Ad Age (oh,
did I say "practically"?); the campaign was "utterly stupid,
ill-conceived and (most important) wasteful ... Corporate chieftains
will conclude, with more than a little justification, that advertising
is not a very effective marketing tool." Crain was further "appalled"
that Miller was nonetheless including Fallon-McElligott in its new
agency review for the brand.

Of course Crain makes a point, especially the "stupid" part -- many
of the Dick ads were sophomoric combos of stale kitsch jokes and insult
humor -- but he gives the lie to the assumption that the advertising
machine, by definition, absorbs any kind of resistance and can't be
offended from within. You can skewer any self-conscious ad with the
insight that It's Trying to Sell You Something: But if it has to cop to
its own manipulations to do it, is it so implausible that that might be
actual progress rather than a plot?

And anyone who believes that all spoofing of marketing is tacitly
rubber-stamped by Corporate Central might look at last week's firing of
editor Michael Hirschorn of Spin. As Hirschorn once told Mediaweek, he
tried "to build the magazine from just being a music-industry bible to
also being a youth-culture bible." Hirschorn's success was that he
recognized there was no point in distinguishing entertainment product
from the rest of the product (electronics, clothes, food) pitched at his
youthful readers; and his downfall -- the "creative differences" Miller
Publishing cited for terminating and buying out Hirschorn -- was
apparently that he treated both types with too little reverence.


During Hirschorn's year and a half, the magazine ran numerous
features taking apart the mechanics of the entertainment biz and
street-fashion marketing, and included, until recently, the acerbic
front-of-book "Product" section, which included arch write-ups on the
consumer goodies foisted on Spin's young readership. Hirschorn calls the
focus an outgrowth of his immersion, and that of his features editor,
David Moodie (formerly of Might), in brand-saturated magazine culture:
"When you spend a lot of time in the media world ... you spend way too
much time seeing through the manipulations and messages that are
targeted at you, so you want to pick them apart."

Without rejecting consumer culture outright, Spin gave its audience a
subtler, more engaging and effective read on it than most academics'.
"Rather than a kind of Marxist response, where you have to smash the
system," Hirschorn says, "I think young people tend to be amused and view it as
a kind of parlor game, where you have to pick apart the old folks'
efforts." Now, the knock on Spin's brand of knowing snidery is that it
all serves those old bastards' interests: that the features and
sarcastic charticles simply feed a general weary cynicism among kids,
who'll keep buying the product while maybe feeling somehow superior to
it -- plus, somebody gets what amounts to a free ad. But that hardly
explains Hirschorn's getting his walking papers.


Granted, Hirschorn's deposal may just prove that publishers are
simply more naive than advertisers are. "[Advertisers] don't respond
favorably if you make fun of their product," he says, "but they respond
favorably to that idea, that kind of metaconsciousness about marketing
and pop culture." But it certainly shows that the work in Spin, both
immersed in and skeptical of the marketing world, was more than
ineffectual ironic quislingism. The problem with the Frank-style
critique is the absurd amount of credit it gives advertisers; by these
defeatist arguments, the same folks who bring you, say, the clumsy,
youth-pandering Mazda Protege ads ("Charlie works in cyberspace/Backslash
dot com all day long") are wily, omnipotent Goebbelses who
can enslave us at whim with a few scribbles on a white board. Really
they're more like quasi-anthropologists, sometimes brilliant, sometimes
bumbling, always perplexed by a tribe that's constantly changing on
them. Advertising critics argue, correctly, that youth marketers rely on
constant change to make room for new product; but that change still
makes them nervous, as the "Dick" campaign and attendant uproar showed.

And if all Spin did was help keep them nervous, that's probably more
than Baffler or Harper's do, for all the quality work both magazines
publish. Spin's smartass needling of youth culture may not have put
Nike out of business, but, better, it helped its readers live slightly
more intelligently in consumer culture. And while Spin's own part in
that culture may have compromised the magazine, at least it let you know
what its place was -- something Hirschorn knows even better now: "In
fact, we were going to do a piece about 'How Spin exploits you, the
reader,' and our role in the global youthsploitation food chain. But,"
he adds dryly, "we never quite got around to that."

James Poniewozik

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

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