PRINT Summer 1987


H-h-h-heads and tails.

JUST REMEMBER, DOG IS GOD spelled backward.

There’s a real party animal. His name is Spuds MacKenzie. He is a dog for whom the girls go. He’s not a beautiful or handsome dog by most standards. He is of that short and composed breed from Britain that looks like a carnivorous sheep. Spuds MacKenzie is Budweiser Lite beer’s cool new role model, their answer to Pepsi’s Don Johnson and Miller’s Rodney Dangerfield. Spuds might be a dog, but he doesn’t even look at dogs anymore. He is the ultimate in upward mobility. He travels by chauffeur-driven convertible, he wears Ray Bans, he orders Bud, and he dates foxy humans. Spuds is Bud.

Max Headroom, television’s newest and most televisual star, is a half-computer-generated, half-human character. He has his own talk show on cable TV, he has his own weekly hourlong adventure series on network television and around the world, and he’s the new spokesperson for Coca-Cola. Both Spuds and Max are the spokesmodels of major conglomerates, but they have something more interesting in common. They are not human. Usually such important sales jobs are filled by humans, but once in a while something special comes along, like Charlie Brown or Morris the cat, that crosses over and captures our imagination by showing us what it’s like to be more than human or less than human. Perhaps these animal vegetable or minimal, animated or conceptual role models help us make ourselves a little more inhuman and a little more to our own liking.

Max Headroom is more than human, and his series is television about television. It takes place “20 minutes into the the future,” where television works both ways: you see it; it sees you. The networks battle it out in the instant ratings 24 hours a day.

Max’s genesis: Edison Carter is a top reporter for Network 23. He goes about tracking down stories for live broadcast, directed by his beautiful controller Theora via computer and satellite hookup. Carter is hot on the story that “blipverts,” rapid-montage commercials, explode the heads of something like one in a thousand viewers (shades of Tony Conrad’s 1966 film The Flicker and of David Cronenberg’s 1981 film Scanners). Under pressure from their biggest foreign customers, his own network decides to put out a contract on him. Carter, trying to escape from an underground garage on a motorcycle, hits a descending barrier marked “MAX HEADROOM” and nearly dies. Before he revives, he is given a “memory scan,” ordered by the network executives, to see what he learned about blipverts. The Network’s teenage head of R & D programs Carter’s memory into his experimental computer and Max Headroom is born: a renegade TV personality, running loose through network programming.

Max Headroom is the ultimate talking head. He is a soul with looks, good looks, but no touch, an angel. He is innocent because he does not have a physical body: being an image, a nonobject, he is totally objective. What that means in practice is that Max has no inhibitions. His superego was apparently lost in the programming. He says whatever comes into his mind; he has no fear. Because of this extreme candor and a sharp wit Max becomes the biggest star on Network 23. He is also its biggest problem because he is free in the system, roaming through the circuitry at will; he cannot be controlled or destroyed without destroying the system. Able to visit any TV set and see through it, Max is semi-all-seeing. Because he’s linked in to the network’s computer system, Max is semi-all-knowing.

Max Headroom is the prototype of the man of the future who has absorbed the logic of the technology he uses. Max’s logic is random access. He leaps in and out of files. He has fast-forward and search modes. He talks the way a rap dj manipulates records, “scratching” his words for emphasis, emphasis, emphasis. His speech is full of quirky shifts in pitch that register his “emotions.” Max Headroom is an electronic person. He drinks the idea of Coke, the image of Coke. He has no kidneys for the real thing.

Max has five Coke spots so far. He has been assigned non-Classic Coke, formerly New Coke, “the new wave in taste.” In “The Cokeologists Reunion” Max addresses an assembly of slightly futuristic yuppie types in a retrofuturist set with Corinthian columns and a vast video screen. Max appears on the screen to applause. “They must be talking about me,” he says with perfect false modesty. “A more modem taste than, than, than”—Max’s looped stutter cues the audience to shout as one, “Pepsi!” “You said the P word!” chides Max. Someone shouts out “Where you been Max?” “Everywhere,” says Max, four times, illustrated. “If you can’t beat it, catch it,” he signs off—“Catch the wave.”

In another spot Max appears on the video-game screen of a teen player. Max reminds him that when he started playing the game he was a Space Cadet, now he is Captain Galaxy. Max tells him that he might not have liked the taste of the formerly new, problem Coke the first time but . . . “again, again, again,” scratches Max. He is not just selling us a product, he’s selling us an idea or two: practice makes perfect, taste can be learned, taste rules. But perhaps more than anything Max is selling us himself and that is the purest form of advertising. Coca-Cola is a soft drink, a line of clothing, Columbia Pictures, and Minute Maid orange juice. Max mirrors his sponsor. He is the diversified conglomerate personified. Max Headroom means “the most head-space.” His mind accesses the mass mind. Headroom is corporate Lebensraum. The audience as new territory. With his electric-blue eyes, beyond-blond hair, and technological heritage, Max may seem to be a post-Aryan model of Superman, gelded into amiability—and maybe he is. It’s lonely at the top.

Back down to earth there’s a man with his feet on the ground. Twice as many as usual in fact. Spuds MacKenzie is a big man too but he’s a dog. His life is play. He doesn’t have to go to the office. He doesn’t have to drive. He’s a pet. He keeps his mouth shut. He’s taken care of business. Business is Max and Spuds. You can drink Coke in the morning and Bud at night. You can be a brainiac one minute and a pooch the next. The spirit and the beast in us may be more partitioned than ever, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be drinking buddies.

Remember Max Headroom is Spuds MacKenzie spelled backward.

Glenn O’Brein is a writer who lives in Brooklyn. His column on advertising appears monthly in Artforum.