The woman in the gray flannel Mao jacket

After two months as an ad woman, Ruth Shalit surveys the historic depiction of her profession and decides she'd rather be a late-capitalist soul-snatcher than a cringing drunk or a thieving ho'.

Published May 11, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Almost from the time the first evaporated milk jingle hit the airwaves, advertising has been denounced as a tool of social control, a sinister instrument of mass persuasion and a stupendous waste of money. Lately the critique has moved into high gear. In such celebrated works as "Captains of Consciousness" and "Fables of Abundance," historians Stuart Ewen and Jackson Lears advance devastating critiques of America's high-powered account men and their ever-more-obtrusive schemes to snatch the souls of today's consumers. In this dark view, ads are "channels of desire" in a sinuous matrix of commodity capitalism, in which cars are offered up as engines for wish fulfillment and colonialism is reinforced in the name of oat bran. Until we safeguard the public from the snake oil of silver-tongued pitchmen, "until we confront the infiltration of the commodity system into the interstices of our lives," writes Ewen in "Captains of Consciousness," social justice will be impossible, and "basic human needs will be laid to waste or ignored."

I'm as much a fan of Frankfurt-School Marxism as any recent liberal-arts college graduate; but two months after starting a new career as a junior-level account executive -- a position that makes me a sublieutenant of consciousness, at best -- I'm still not completely persuaded by this view of ad pro as hegemon. (Then again, I wouldn't be, would I? If there is such a thing as "false consciousness," its giant brain must lie at the corner of 18th and Madison.) Some of my industry colleagues, however, are clearly delighted with the idea. "All advertising people should read Mr. Ewen's book," gloats an article in Advertising Age, "if only to discover how powerful, how elitist, how successful we really are."

It's not hard to understand why ad men get such a kick out of this portrait of themselves as evil geniuses, the bully boy enforcers of late commodity capitalism. For years, they've had to suffer through Hollywood's depiction of their business as a sinkhole of soulless conformity, a mausoleum for deadweight yes men slinging crunch-a-licious, Flavor-ific prose. Think of Darrin on "Bewitched": the sine qua non of the American salaryman, he spends his days dreaming of $5,000 bonuses and is given to such diclassi utterances as "Today the Bliss Pharmaceutical Company -- tomorrow the world!" Or the bibulous Joe Klain in "Days of Wine and Roses": A caricature of hangdog submissiveness, he swills martinis, rustles up hookers for clients and grimly braces himself for the loss of all his key accounts. "I spent a lot of time on that account," grovels a severely hungover Klain, upon hearing that his hard-drinking ways have just cost him his Covington Farms client. "Perhaps, Joe -- too much," ominously reproves his all-seeing boss.

After these dreary chronicles of organization-man abasement, what a relief to pick up a book like "Captains of Consciousness" and encounter ad men of diabolical vigor and potency, men who reinforce corporate hegemony, prop up the cash nexus and still find time to write couplets for Luxor soap. Can you imagine the meek-hearted Darrin marshaling the nerve to say "boo" to a goose, let alone cunningly weave the commodity system into the interstices of our lives? I didn't think so.

The only television show to truly incorporate the Marxist critique, which sees advertising as a synecdoche for all that is debauched and evil in American culture, is Aaron Spelling's "Melrose Place," with its searing portrait of wayward account executives who are more than willing to cheat, cook the books, turn tricks, even kill, all in pursuit of those top-drawer accounts. At the redoubtable Amanda Woodward Agency, which serves as the setting for these TV-M misdeeds, sex and perfidy are considered business as usual, and the account reps needn't dip into the slush fund to procure prostitutes for clients, as, happily, many are prostitutes themselves. To be sure, when the bottle-blond ad babes let fly with lines like "You thieving whore, these are my clients," it may not be the most articulate indictment of commodity capitalism of the Clinton era. All the same, the show does manage a critique of Madison Avenue mores that makes Herbert Marcuse look like a Rotarian toastmeister. Consider the following scene, the centerpiece of last season's cliffhanger finale, "Who's Afraid of Amanda Woodward?" As the scene opens, Amanda, who is played by Heather Locklear, is unveiling with her usual fanfare a new campaign for a long-standing client, Ted Kroger. "And now," says Amanda, "the pihce de risistance. Four 30-second spots during the '98 NFC Championship Game."

"Very nice presentation, Amanda," says Kroger. "Now, let's hear the damage."

"Fifteen million," Amanda says. "Not a penny more ... A good agency is your partner, Ted. You benefit; we benefit."

But what's this? Also seated at the table is Sydney Andrews, a repentant streetwalker just hired by the agency to serve as its "efficiency coordinator" (a lady of the night turned TQM martinet -- only on "Melrose"). And in the end it is Sydney, the flame-haired deviant, the disrupter of bourgeois sexual arrangements, who proves herself the group's moral compass. Rising to her feet, she declares her boss's figures to be "grossly inflated ... Mr. Kroger, you are getting fleeced here, to the tune of $5 million." Ted Kroger, understandably riled, tells Amanda she has "until the end of the week" to come up with some new numbers. As soon as he leaves the room, Amanda turns on Sydney, asking her what on earth she could have been thinking. "I know a snow job when I see it, Amanda," Sydney retorts. "And so does Mr. Kroger." Amanda tells the righteous fleshpot to get off her high horse: "This whole business is snow jobs -- blizzards of snow jobs. You just tossed out our whole profit margin."

Seeing that she has no future in Amanda's vice-laden boutique, Sydney gathers together her troops, a rebellious coterie of art directors and copywriters, and proudly announces the formation of "a new company -- our own agency. Let's put the bitch out of business." Stuart Ewen couldn't have said it better! Alas, though, Sydney's schemes end in tears when her agency, Sky High Advertising, devolves into yet another high-class call girl ring, and the blizzards of snow jobs give way to, well, you can imagine.

On the other end of the verisimilitude spectrum is "thirtysomething," the whining yuppie drama that won plaudits for capturing the mysterious folkways of agency life. In the late '80s, knowledge of the show was de rigueur inside the industry; articles in Brandweek and Advertising Age breathlessly tracked plot developments and offered the fictional ad-hunks earnest advice ("Michael, keep down that overhead!" urged Advertising Age.) It's not hard to see why. Whereas the profession of advertising tends to be portrayed as a schlocky business, all blaring jingles and crass gimmickry, "thirtysomething," with the help of on-staff consultants from the uber-hip L.A. agency Chiat-Day, conferred upon it the voluptuous sheen of high art. Michael Steadmen and Elliot Weston, the show's protagonists, were not middlebrow hucksters but squeamishly sensitive craftsmen, fiercely protective of their snack-cake oeuvre. No jaundiced chit-chat about profit margins and blizzards and blizzards of snow jobs here. Instead, lots of sitting around in shirtsleeves, brainstorming, describing advertising concepts as if each bore the fire of pure genius:
"I've never seen such a well-considered and executed preliminary presentation." "It's the core concept. Everything else suggested itself." "Seminal ideas will do that. And this is a seminal idea." And so on.

For a while, everything comes up roses at the "Michael & Elliot Agency," an Edenic space where human qualities are celebrated, workers' ingenuity rewarded and consumer insights swapped over upscale takeout. But halfway through the show's run, the duo lose their biggest account in a client merger, and are forced to close up shop. In a true-to-life twist, Michael and Elliot pack up their toys and head over to "DAA Advertising," a soulless, heartless mega-agency owned by vulpine smoothie Miles Drentell. There, their artistic muse is promptly extinguished by the rule-bound preachments of Drentell and his collaborator, creative director Carl Draconis, who loves nothing better than to pick on his golden boys for "getting ahead of the data" and for running afoul of the organizational chart.

But in a memorable three-episode arc, goodness triumphs and faith is reaffirmed, as Michael and Elliot vanquish the evil Draconis in a high-stakes battle over the future of O-Boy pies. It all starts with a marketing epiphany. As Michael and Elliot sit watching a nerve-jangling commercial for "The Goop," a high-tech snack that kids squeeze out of tubes like Day-Glo toothpaste, they realize that their humble snack treat cannot compete with such ultra-hip fare. An O-Boy pie, Elliot laments, "doesn't squeeze out or roll up or turn into something cool. It just sits there and then you eat it. How boring." Michael and Elliot then realize that the future of their brand lies in a bold new concept: retro-snacking. "Throwing O-Boy pies in the kids' market would be suicide," Michael muses. "What we should do is reclaim the old market ... Position O-Boy as an adult product, a nostalgic, guilty pleasure. It's a completely new approach."

But when they call a meeting to present their idea to the agency's creative director, the rule-bound technocrat Carl Draconis, things don't go as planned. The meeting gets off to a sour start when Elliot accidentally sits in Draconis' chair, and has to be reminded that "creative director gets center chair." In a foul mood, Draconis proceeds to drive a stake through the heart of retro-snacking. "Where's your research?" he asks. "Where's your analysis? You're proposing a radical new approach -- why? Because it amuses you? It'll give you a cleaner stage?" Never mind that that's usually all the justification a creative would need. Draconis declares he has had just about enough of Michael and Elliot and their brazen, rule-breaking ways. "You're too far ahead of the research," snivels the buttoned-down conformist, who is memorably played by Stanley Tucci. "I will not squander the time and resources of this organization on vanity projects."

Undeterred, Michael and Elliot take their big idea straight to the top. "In English -- let's sell cookies to the grownups," Michael tells agency president Miles Drentell, as heroic music swells and builds. "Let's use the long life of the brand to reactivate buyers who have aged out of the target group." Drentell is blown away, calling the approach "brilliant." "All we have to do is sand off the edges ... We'll work out a television campaign, produce a spot and see how it flies with a focus group." He then turns to Draconis. "You were against this, weren't you? This concept of retro-snacking and this approach ... I understand you thought it was -- non-viable." Draconis blanches. "Can we have this discussion in private?" he asks. It's too late. The creative director is toast. "You made a mistake," Miles thunders. "For reasons I neither can nor wish to comprehend, you tried to block one of the best conceptual takes on a new account I've ever seen. And if it weren't for Michael and Elliot's tenacity, I never would have seen it." In the next scene, a workman is shown expunging Draconis' name from the black granite directory, as the victors croon over their cherished snack cakes. "Come with me, my little chocolate lovelies," purrs Elliot. "If you knew what we had in store for you, your creamy fillings would be all aquiver."

My agency, Mad Dogs & Englishmen, bears no resemblance to the venerable megalith DAA; actually, with its feng shui consultants and roving hordes of Jack Russell terriers, it looks a lot more like Michael and Elliot's noble, doomed creative arcadia. All the same, I was curious to know what my co-workers thought of the show -- in particular, the climactic plot twist involving retro-snacking. When I showed the scripts around, reaction was mixed. Though my colleagues were impressed by the show's genuineness, and thought it credibly portrayed the opposing forces of hot creativity and cold research at a big agency, they also spotted a few glitches. The character of Carl Draconis, the dorky creative director, was considered particularly wide of the mark. "I've never met a creative director who cares that much about the business issues, let alone the center chair," says Judith Grey, a senior art director. "They usually want to be in the beanbag chair in the corner, and want to be told what to do, as opposed to telling everyone else what to do." Michael Fanuele, deputy planning director, agreed. "The whole thing is just bizarre," he said. "Usually it's the creative director who wants to poke around and challenge the research and challenge the status quo." But Fanuele also faulted the good guys for being unnecessarily provocative. "Michael shouldn't have spent all that time banging his head against the wall," he said. "He should have just gone to the research department and fabricated some numbers to get it by the creative director."

But here's something really interesting. One of our clients is Yoo-Hoo, which, when you think about it, isn't all that different from O-Boy. And it turns out that, when we were first handed the account back in '97, our first strategic insight was -- retro-snacking! "It's totally something we considered for Yoo-Hoo, which is another one of those nostalgic treats," said Fanuele, the lead planner on the account. "We thought we would target people in their 30s and 40s and 50s. People who used to love Yoo-Hoo, and now don't."

What went wrong? Well, it seems the Draconian Carl Draconis might have had a tiny little point. Retro-snacking, while conceptually neat as a pin, is revealed to be a complete dud by even the most preliminary market research. For one thing, Fanuele explains, "it turns out the amount of money you'd have to spend to re-create the brand for [boomers] is pretty much cost-prohibitive." And for advocates of retro-snacking, there is another, chewier problem. It turns out that teenagers drink by far the most soft drinks, and eat the most convenience-store snack treats, of any demographic out there. And so, if you don't have teenagers consuming you, you really can't survive as a soft drink -- or as an O-Boy. Which is why, after reviewing the research and analysis, Mad Dogs reluctantly abandoned retro-snacking. "We decided that adults who've got a nostalgic love affair with Yoo-Hoo are, potentially, a great secondary target," Michael told me. "But if you're going to live in a convenience store environment, you really need teenagers on your side. You've got to fish where the fish are." As it turned out, the teen-centric approach was definitely the way to go -- you'll be happy to know that according to the latest numbers, Yoo-Hoo now dominates its category of "shelf-stable non-carbonated chocolate drinks."

If it's true that art imitates life, and life imitates bad TV, I suppose any one of these cultural signifiers could turn out to be the template for the new me. My life could become a long, slow slide into gray-flanneled pathos, as Yoo-Hoos give way to triple vodka martinis and a daily grind of meaningless, alienating labor. It could become "Melrose Place," a tear-stained roundelay of sex and duplicity. Or, who knows, it could even be "thirtysomething," a fairy tale of hip corporatism, complete with Ivy League colleagues swapping irony-drenched insights over O-Boy pies.

Considering these options, I think I'd just as soon be a heartless arbiter of transitory hegemonies. And you know what that means. Today, shelf-stable non-carbonated chocolate drinks -- tomorrow, the world.

By Ruth Shalit

Ruth Shalit is an account planner at Mad Dogs & Englishmen, a New York advertising agency. For more columns by Shalit, visit her column archive.

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