PRINT November 1987


Fort Madison Avenue.

THE YOUNG JET ACE WALKS away from his bird, carrying his helmet. His CO comes over and congratulates him on his flying. The CO asks the young pilot if he won’t reconsider and sign up for another hitch. The young pilot says no, that he and his girl have made plans. The CO then hands the pilot a letter. It’s a letter he’s been expecting. It’s from American Airlines. He’s been accepted. “I hope they know they’re getting one of the best,” says the CO.

Meanwhile, up around 40,000 feet a bunch of even younger top guns are hot-rodding their interceptors to music by a band that sounds a lot like ZZ Top. Then one of these devil-may-care pilots develops trouble with his plane: the refreshment system goes down. The Pepsi cooler deploys but fails to eject. But the resourceful jet-jockey manages to propel the soft drink mouthward by rolling his aircraft. Know-how plus imagination: that’s the taste of a new generation.

Meanwhile another fighter pilot is on the phone talking to the buddy he left behind. The buddy is upset. His wedding is only five hours away and his best man is five thousand miles away. “Don’t worry,” says the jet-boy. “I’ll be there.” That’s what friends are for. And sure enough he hops in the cockpit and blasts back to America at Mach 2. As he arrives he peels off his flight suit and there’s his dinner jacket underneath. He made it and he’s still fresh, thanks to Old Spice deodorant’s “all-out protection,” and to a great country that picked up the bill for several thousand pounds of jet fuel.

Meanwhile at boot camp a drill instructor and his recruits are bonding through the mutual use of Old Spice after-shave. At another boot camp the marines are telling it to each other about the new financing deals at their local Dodge dealer.

Meanwhile a platoon of women soldiers closely resembling Private Benjamin’s unit marches by chanting the traditional drill song “Sound Off,” a song that lends itself to ribald improvisation and also to selling Sine-Off, a relief for sinus discomfort.

Meanwhile a U.S. Marine Corps drill team shows off some fancy footwork on behalf of the Yellow Pages—steps like “the James Brown,” and “the Jimi at Monterey.”

This is not the first time in TV history that the military has participated in commercial maneuvers, but it does seem that never before have so many uniformed actors pitched so many products. Does this sponsor war? Or merely more aggressive ad campaigns? More intensive media blitzes? More attacks on competitors?

It may be simply a tactical escalation of audience-targeting. For years, advertising-research strategists have created abstracts of their markets, breaking them down into a number of personality archetypes. In philosophy it’s “Know thyself,” in advertising it’s “Know who you’re selling to.” By precisely targeting one of those types one can gain a dominant position in the marketplace. One major consumer profile group is the “belongers.” Belongers bask in the identity of their organizations and affinity groups, whether it be Classic Coke drinkers or this man’s army. And what better way to reach the belonger than to put spokesmodels in the uniform of their country. My mom used to say, “You always look twice at a man in uniform,” and that’s a cost-effective way to double your exposure.

Despite the increased troop presence in advertising, actual conflict has yet to break out. These are peacetime soldiers, like the entire M✻A✻S✻H cast (just about), which has enlisted with IBM, turning ploughshares into preferred shares. Although combat would undoubtedly serve as an effective context for spots selling such products as Tylenol, Excedrin, NoDoz, and Compōz, not to mention Right Guard, it’s not here yet. We are still waiting for the spot heard round the world.

Combat is unquestionably on the rise in the cinema, which, like advertising, had been relatively peaceable for years and then suddenly was filled with combat troops. American industry is being challenged abroad. It’s one small step from Chrysler commercials paraphrasing “Born in the U.S.A.” to war actually breaking out in thirty-second spots. Perhaps Juan Valdez, the venerable TV coffee-picker, will turn up among the contras, fighting alongside Chiquita Banana and other Latin American folk heroes. Can the Full Metal Muffler and Hamburger Helper Hill be far off?

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