PRINT October 1985


Docu-Ads. Marketing realism in 30-second spots.

A PRINCIPAL SPONSOR OF the Live Aid broadcast, AT&T, concocted a special advertisement for the occasion—documentary footage of starving Africans accompanied by AT&T’s familiar theme song, “Reach out, reach out and touch someone!” The nicest thing the message seemed to be saying was “call Ethiopia.” And what would we say to an Ethiopian? Getting any more food yet? Hang in there baby?

Coca-Cola was another sponsor of Live Aid and I was waiting for that big Christmas-tree-shaped mob of new, old, classic, cherry, diet, and caffeine-free people holding candles and singing, “I’d like to buy the world a Coke.” It was an act of charity that Live Aid was not supported by the tough man who makes a tender chicken, or by Wendy’s, who could have flown Clara Peller to a desert wasteland to wail, “Where’s the beef?”

The AT&T ad backfired. You can’t run a jingle over emaciated faces and bloated bellies, no matter how benevolent its words are. A jingle is a jingle. We are not giving anything away; we are the world of advertising.

You can’t mess around with documentary. People may not know the truth but they know its production values, they know how it’s lit, they know a union actor from a man in the street, and they know their consumer laws. That’s why when we see that man sniffling with a head cold, in terrible discomfort before showering his nasal passages with decongestant and getting instant relief, they flash a caveat on the screen, “ACTOR.” When a covered wagon 6 inches high zips across a kitchen floor pulled by a team of horses the size of small rats, that’s okay, it’s clearly fiction. But when advertising approaches reality in any form it best take care. America is into reality. Real People and More Real People.

Documentary and fake-documentary advertising on television have a long history, filled with brand X and piles of white laundry and whiter white laundry arid millions of real housewives who can’t believe that anything could do a better job than the brand of their allegiance. Such ads have gone in and out and in, again and again. And the quality of real-people talent has skyrocketed. Real people today are almost as good and as in demand as the pros. Today, when real people testify in commercials, they don’t hem and haw and say, “duh . . . this pile is definitely whiter and brighter.” They say something very amusing in a style suggesting that The Tonight Show might be their next stop. When Pontiac asks people what was the last exciting thing that happened to them, they find tomorrow’s stars in the streets—the crotchety old man who says, “My wife left me.” “That was exciting?” “You should have seen my wife.” Henny Youngman could do no better.

The old Candid Camera-style ad still lives in the Folger’s Crystals ads in which the fine coffee usually served by a good restaurant has been secretly replaced by Folger’s Crystals, yet customers rave to the hidden camera that it’s the best damn cup of their life. The restaurant featured in one of these ads closed but lived on in the ad, which is presumably an advertising classic, being so fakely authentic that it has achieved camp cult status.

Today’s consumers are so hip they are into oldie commercials and the realness of bad commercials. They prefer the actual owners of the business appearing in an ad to any hired actor. On the national level we have Frank Perdue, but the real stars are local people like New York ice cream magnate Tom Carvel, who croaks with a naive charm that is television’s equivalent of art’s Howard Finster In Los Angeles, car salesman and amateur dadaist Cal Worthington never fails to charm by introducing his dog, Spot, played by a different species of animal each time. These real people retain eccentricities, vulgarities, and mannerisms that trained actors can only simulate.

The documentary look and feel has become especially popular in ads that cover “heavy” subject matter. For example, the public-service antidrug ad “Just say no” follows an urban teenager as he leaves the decency of his familial apartment for the danger of the streets and dozens of drug offers. Point-of-view shots are especially effective in these fake docu-ads, whether the viewers have a victim’s-eye view of a fatal car crash in a “don’t drink and drive” spot, or find themselves projected into the body of a fireman being brought back from death’s door in an insurance commercial.

Documentary ads offer an insider’s view of the action. In Time magazine’s subscription campaign on TV the dark-suited never-blinking spokesman is your surrogate as Time takes you there. He wanders calmly and erectly through a bombed-out Beirut street as combatants scurry around him ducking gunfire. He wanders through an operating room; across the floor of the American Stock Exchange; backstage at a “Broadway opening” (which looks a lot like stock-company Henry V); and through an art gallery (Time claims to take you to “the most exclusive galleries to show you the most significant trends in the arts”; the setting seems to be the Vorpal Gallery, and it looks as if there’s going to be a significant revival of surreal Pierrots.) This is the ultra documentary; the camera walks on its own two legs.

Documentary-style advertising often challenges the viewer with its realistic dares to the sense of self. Reading the Scientology tract Dianetics may make a mountain-climber out of you like it has the attractive readers/climbers in the TV spot. But so might your breakfast. In a Grape Nuts ad a similar mountain-climber points out far below him the path that most people would have taken up the mountain, adding that he has taken his own way, giving partial credit for his greatness to Grape Nuts, and almost paraphrasing John F Kennedy in more or less saying “Ask not if Grape Nuts are right for you. Ask are you right for Grape Nuts.”

Glenn O’Brien is a regular viewer and advertising columnist for Artforum.