PRINT September 1987


Amaretto di Ollie

SINCE I BEGAN TO WRITE this column I have noticed that many of the people I know have an attitude toward advertising somewhere between disdain and contempt. These liberal and apparently cultured people tend to assume that if it’s an ad it must be a lie. The rest of the people I know are now appearing in ads for Amaretto or Rose’s lime juice.

As more and more people I know are showing up in liqueur and syrup ads and as more and more people I know manifest an exaggerated disdain for advertising as the most visible aspect of supercapital, treating it as one of the lowest forms of human communication, I can’t help but wonder: who’s whom and whom’s who?

During the summer, as I sat drinking beer, leafing through magazines, and watching the Irangate hearings on television and the crops in the yard, I began wondering more and more: Amaretto di Ezra? In advertising Mussolini on Italian radio, Ezra Pound was clearly willing to take risks, but if he were working today would he risk a product endorsement? Fiat might be tempting, being, after all, Mussolini’s car brand, and the brand of senatus populusque Romanus. When he lived in Rapallo Pound spent his evenings feeding the stray cats. Would he do a Kal Kan spot? We will never know the answer to these questions, but it doesn’t seem to stop us from raising them.

Joe Isuzu is the guy who sells Isuzu automobiles on television. He’s the man you wouldn’t want to buy a used car from. He tells you about prices, credit arrangements, and the qualities of the car, while subtitles tell you he’s lying. The Isuzu Trooper is actually the status four-by-four among today’s survivalist yuppies. It’s the kind of car Ollie North would drive in the field. (“You have my word on it.”) Like Ollie, Joe isn’t really lying. Both men are engaged in campaigns of disinformation. They are lying in support of their vision of the truth.

Joe disinforms to draw attention to the truth beneath his claims and to signal his audience that the advertiser is aware of their contempt for the big lie of advertising. Joe lies in an exemplary manner, to atone for the sins of all the lying hucksters who have gone before him. Joe comes as the savior of the car salesmen—he lies for their sins. And the ad is redeemed. Joe lies because you expect him to lie, but he lies so well it produces the truth.

Ollie North also lied to enhance the greater truth. “They were doing their job and I was doing mine.” But he made the mistake of lying to too few people. He should have taken his campaign to the people in the form of advertising. The only campaign that would really have helped the contras would have been one on national TV between segments of Moonlighting. That way any donations that ensued would have been entirely legal. If the ads were good enough the American people would surely have bought contra. (Say Bruce Willis as a contra and Joe Piscopo playing the fat corrupt Sandinista-as-Wallace Beery.) Also, an effective ad campaign might have forced Congress to back Reagan’s efforts to support the contras.

Colonel North’s apparent rejection of advertising is characteristic of the contempt of today’s yuppie puritans for the world of modern rhetoric. Ollie is too clean, too classical, for advertising. Most people would probably consider him to be above advertising because he tells the truth (at least when he’s not lying to protect it), and everyone feels that advertising spokespersons are lying even when they’re telling the truth, because they’re being paid to say it. Ollie won’t sell out. (Unless he’s ordered to.) But isn’t selling out the American way, a sine qua non of capitalism and its resultant democracy? Advertising is what makes democracy work. People might not see the truth unless you try to sell it to them.

Reagan, the Great Communicator, is in fact no better a spokesperson for America than he was for General Electric or 20 Mule Team borax. He just doesn’t understand that incredible advertising is what makes people buy ideas too. He just has too much deniability.

If America stands for anything it’s for the fact that people can be governed by 30-second spots and not bullets. Why send our boys to fight and die when wars can be fought more effectively by a topflight ad agency? Instead of bombs, let’s drop packages of free samples and advertising leaflets. When will they ever learn? When will they ever learn?

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