PRINT October 1987


All the better to eat you with.

RECENTLY I HAPPENED to catch an ABC News “business brief,” an indispensable service for those whose perception of Wall Street tends to dull during prime time, and what I heard made me skip a program in my channel-changing. Gold and silver were up, the Dow Jones was way up, but, the anchorwoman noted, Consumer Confidence was down considerably. Only a few weeks before, polls had showed that most Americans believed that their president was lying to them. From there it seemed only a matter of time before they would begin to suspect their laundry detergent of lying to them.

It would be easy to blame this climate of suspicion on the president and his advisors, but their actions are only a part of a vast faith deficit. As scandals have rocked the evangelical ministries of Oral Roberts, Jimmy Swaggart, and Jim and Tammy Bakker, many viewers must have come to believe that even God was lying to them, or at least exaggerating quite a bit.

I turned off the television and began digging into the huge stack of unread newspapers next to the cat box. There I found yet another reason why Consumer Confidence is eroding like Alka Seltzer in a glass of water. According to a New York Times editorial page, the Food and Drug Administration is getting out of the advertising business. In a bold move they plan to deregulate the health claims made for food products. More foods than ever will be good for you and the same old foods will be a lot more beneficial than you ever realized.

Now I won’t have to worry about whether I’m getting enough fiber; it will be everywhere. But on the other hand I may feel like I’m getting either way too much or not enough cholesterol and sodium, since the health benefits of these former toxins are bound to emerge. As for the vitamin C added to my soda pop, breakfast cereal, concentrated fruit juice, etc., I’m sure I’ll be getting the Minimum Daily Requirement, but in light of Dr. Linus Pauling’s research, can the consumer be confident that the minimum requirement is enough? Meanwhile macrobiotic acquaintances tell me that this extra vitamin C is a shortcut to death. According to the milk industry ads, dairy products are the source of the calcium that I need, but if I listen to my holistic friends the road to hell is paved with cheddar. It’s almost enough to make one listen to one’s appetite.

Cybill Shepherd moonlights as the spokesmodel for the meat industry. She calls meat “real food for real people.” Or rather the meat producers’ copywriters call it that, establishing a connection between vegetarianism and fiction. Unfortunately Cybill has since revealed that she doesn’t eat much red meat, but after all she is only modeling the idea. This has meant low credibility marks for meat, but now with deregulation suddenly beef can be a health food.

Not only is the FDA deregulating health claims, but the FCC has thrown out the Fairness Doctrine. I have never fully understood what the Fairness Doctrine means, but I always felt a bit more secure knowing that it was there and that presumably someone understood it and was paying attention to it. Apparently politicians or advertisers are now entirely free to make outrageous claims or assertions on television or radio without worrying that their opponents or competitors can demand equal time from the broadcaster. I’m not sure that’s what this portends, but it has got to be a blow to “fairness” in one form or another and that’s not good for my Consumer Confidence.

So what’s an advertiser to do in a climate of such entropic dubiousness? Maybe the answer is the abstraction of the claim: advertising that tosses the whole concept of credibility off the fire escape, as it were. This is the way blue jeans and perfumes have been sold for some years now. And it would appear that consumers have no trouble whatsoever believing in products that deal not with belief but with suspicion, ambiguity, innuendo, even doubt itself.

Take, for example, the Guess/Georges Marciano jeans campaign. Please. Page after page in all the fashion magazines. Black and white photos of nubile mannequins caressing an aging, balding schmuck who looks like Prince Rainier on a bad day. These are not images that inspire credibility. They depict a cynical stance, a network of deception. But among cynics perhaps they do inspire confidence. Cynics don’t have to “Guess” what a nice girl is doing in an ad like this. She’s cashing in on a classic credibility gap. For both the women and the sugar daddy these fashions establish confidence as the credibility of a postcredible age. Tasteless, perhaps, but quite effective. In fact, such techniques might work just as well, if not a little better, selling troubled products like red meat. Just make it “surreal food for surreal people.”

It has been said that Morris the Cat, spokespet for 9-Lives cat food, will mount a serious run for the presidency, but in the meantime he’s gaining even more of our confidence by being the first star to fight animal drug abuse in his just “Say ‘No’ to Catnip” campaign. He would he the first truly-horn-again spokesperson president, being a replacement for the deceased original. This cat is for real.

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