PRINT December 1986


the good, the bad, and the smelly.

AS OUR ADVERTISING YEAR draws to a close, I have a few observations about trends in advertising over the last season.

The City of New York may soon have one of the toughest antismoking laws in the country, banning tobacco fumes in most public places and requiring that restaurants set aside 50 percent of their seating for nonsmokers. Already, if you light up in an elevator you do so at the risk of prosecution. But it’s still possible to enter an elevator wearing dangerous levels of perfume or cologne, gagging fellow passengers with impunity. And if it weren’t bad enough that noxious scents remain uncontrolled in public places, we are now being subjected to intensely fragrant assaults from magazine advertisements. Chances are that a fashion magazine near you is, at this moment, emitting several scents at once: Obsession, Giorgio, Deneuve, and Poison, combining in an unholy fashion spoor. Although these inserts are supposed to be released only when a flap is opened by the reader, unopened fashion magazines reek on the newsstands, each book smelling like an overcrowded, overdressed elevator. Married men are advised to keep their distance from today’s women’s magazines.

Advertising often imitates art imitating life, and it’s not hard to find commercial messages adopting the styles and tendencies of their less profane counterparts. But it wasn’t until recently that I was able to detect a Cubist influence in television sportswear advertising. I can’t recall the product, and I’m still waiting to see it again, but it was a startling breakthrough in combining the Cubist technique with classic subliminal tactics. A young woman walks into a bar. She’s wearing jeans. She stands at the bar at a place where the bar can be opened for the bartender to pass through, so that while the bar divides her image at the waist, it doesn’t block our vision of her. A young man enters the bar. He stops. Their eyes meet in a possibly meaningful gaze/embrace. The young man then moves on. The young woman coolly looks away. But from the waist down she turns and follows him. I guess, since I can’t remember the product, or whether it was the men’s clothing, the women’s clothing, or both that was being touted, that this is a case of an ad being simply too good for its own good.

If you can’t make a really good commercial, the next best thing is probably to make a very bad one. It will be noticed. In this, advertising is not so different from painting and film.

There are many ways to be bad. All angels are alike, but each devil is different. One of the most effective techniques for making a bad commercial is to make a mistake. In an ad for a local appliance dealer, the president of the store himself proclaimed, “You, the customer, is our biggest concern?” This simple mismatch of pronoun and verb made the spot excruciatingly memorable. A spot for a New York hairweaving salon, Diane’s Interlok, is even more subtle, showing three very satisfied customers digging their hair and proclaiming, “Oh Diane!” Each pronounces the name in a completely unique manner. It hooks you every time.

But among bad commercials, the most effective is the old bad commercial. Not only is it proven to be bad, but it appeals to our nostalgia for kitsch pitches past. An ad for a New York furnishings outlet called Kitchen Beautiful begins with two pairs of platform-shod feet doing the hustle to Van McCoy’s original “The Hustle” from 1973. As the camera pulls back we see that the dancers are working out on a tabletop as our announcerette intones, “No, this is not a discotheque. This is Kitchen Beautiful.” This ad has been running since the hustle was young, and it’s even more effective today. Van McCoy may be gone, but the hustle lives on, on a kitchen tabletop. This ad is such a favorite among New Yorkers that the cry “This is not a discotheque” is often heard at wild parties. And recently a rock video by Tom Rubnitz for John Sex’s song “Hustle With My Muscle” featured a platform-shoe tabletop hustle segment obviously inspired by Kitchen Beautiful. We even hear Mr. Sex testify, “This is not a disco.”

That’s ad business!

Glenn O’Brien is a writer who moved to Brooklyn. This column appears regularly in Artforum.