PRINT April 1988



IT ALWAYS AMAZES ME when I’m watching a football game and all that soaring and hurling and colliding and bleeding and limping is suddenly interrupted by an advertisement for something remarkably abstract and unpurchasable. I don’t know why, but aerospace contractors and microchip makers and high-technology companies with products priced in six or more figures are always advertising in the middle of football and basketball games. Why does ITT, for example, want to reach the fans, the plebs, the masses?

We can easily understand and accept the beer ads that come with the game. We can easily understand the car ads for “the best-built American cars” or “the heartbeat of America.” They make as much sense in the context of the game as the national anthem. But diversified-conglomerate ads give us a moment’s pause. There they are during times out, explaining that ITT is luxury hotels, auto parts, defense systems, fluid technology, and financial services. Surely they must be aware that most of us are not shopping for defense systems or even well-defended hotel rooms. Wouldn’t it make more sense to deluge the country with ITT-imprinted golf balls and other executive toys?

Perhaps this is no run-of-the-mill advertising going on here. Perhaps this is praetorship. As in “Let the games commence.” Perhaps diversified-conglomerate advertising during sports events is just a way of saying “We care” to those of the hoi polloi who haven’t gone to the refrigerator to acquire a beer or to the bathroom to eliminate one.

But some middle-to-upper-level executives and entrepreneurs must like sports, because a major trend in sports sponsorship is ads for high-tech business systems and services aimed at these purchasers. Computers, telephone and communications systems, and copiers turn up often during times out. At half a million dollars, director Ridley Scott’s 1984-like introduction of the Macintosh computer was the most expensive commercial in history at the time (1984). It ran only once, but that was during the Superbowl, where a picture is worth a million words. And it was an epic commercial, befitting the grandiosity of the occasion.

Today’s computer commercial is something else. It is generally a miniature corporate soap opera. The corporate soap opera itself is a relatively new but well-established TV genre—such as St. Elsewhere, and particularly L.A. Law. And advertising’s 30-second versions of it have much the same sort of class-bonding appeal. But their message is even stronger, or at least more elitist, because they’re not really going for big ratings numbers here. They’re going for results.

Today Macintosh appeals directly to a corporate elite. The company’s current campaign focuses on executives showing up other executives in meetings through their computer expertise and the uncanny versatility of their data systems. The hands-on computer jock seems to know what other execs can only guess and he’s prepared to do it all, no matter how bad he makes his byteless peers look.

In one Mac spot an advertising agency is pitching clients who are knocked out by its presentation. But the clients have one reservation: they had insisted on maximum security, and the ad people have obviously brought in typesetters and layout people. . . but no, the computer did the whole thing. What kind of computer could do all that?! “Hire us and we’ll tell you.”

In other Mac spots we see the creative executive, suddenly freed from the need for assistants and drudges, working from a Caribbean islet, linked to discontented civilization through his modem.

And then we often catch glimpses of the remarkable thinkers at Hewlett-Packard as they are seized with inspiration. It’s amazing the places these consultants get their ideas. We used to see them working late at the office, but these days they are usually driving their Corvette through intensely beautiful deserts or doing laps in an Olympic-size pool when the muse interfaces and they scramble off to phone the home office: “What if. . . . ”

For every exec we see looking good, we see one with egg on face. The poor bastards who have sunk the company’s money into now-obsolete phone systems. The pissed-off big shot who’s calling from the airport and can’t get past the goof-off security guard who’s trying to listen to the game on the radio. The harried salesman who says that he can’t produce new customers out of thin air, only to be told, “That’s your job.”

Now we are seeing a terrible truth about business. It’s horribly embarrassing. And it wouldn’t be that surprising to see one of the buyers of these obsolescent phone systems commit ritual seppuku one of these days after such a radical loss of face. Who could blame him?

In today’s corporate world, face is our fortune. Embarrassment, when properly (politely) harnessed, is the most powerful weapon in our computerized update of Machiavelli’s The Prince.

You have to get up pretty early in the morning not to be fooled now and then. There are some pretty tough customers out there and they seem willing to use any trick in the mainframe to pull the software over one’s eyes.

Take Wang. Please. Wang’s are some of the most radical TV spots in commercial history. They consist of pseudodocumentary presentations of corporate diatribes consisting of the most impenetrable, egregious shoptalk, shot in an artily oblique style and capped pompously, without comment, by the company logo.

In a current edition we see the back of an executive head—we’ll call him X—and we hear the voice of his interlocutor, whom we’ll call Y.

Y: Once more.

X: An employee pension fund. Thousand phone calls a day through voice processing on Wang VS computer. The VS accesses an IBM 4381. Voice access Wang office WP plus. . . COBOL. . . for 71 pension administrators on line.

Y: So the mainframe’s operating as a file server?

X: Yeah, we do all the integration. That’s our edge.

Y: Voice, data, word, networking, human factors. . . .

X: Uh. . . human factors?

Y: Real people. When they pick up the phone they’re integrated. Integration’s key.

X: Good point.

It sounds like the most horrid gibberish, but what if they’re right? We’re half convinced that they know something we don’t know. In fact they seem to know a whole language we don’t know. (Is it Fortran? DOS? Esperanto?) After several viewings, perhaps we’re even embarrassed that their hyperargot remains impenetrable. Perhaps our embarrassment is actualized. Perhaps we pick up the communication-system module (phone) and interface with Wang lest we be financially embarrassed down the road. It’s either that or the dagger. But wait! What if we download our central memory macro library through our macro dick for work stations. . . .

Glenn O’Brien is a writer who lives in Brooklyn. He contributes this column monthly to Artforum.