PRINT November 1990


TELEVISION ADVERTISING IS CHANGING, and on every level. It is changing in terms of quantity, in the sense that fewer ads are being shot worldwide, partly in reaction to the flood of TV commercials in previous years. It is changing in terms of format—people have begun to prefer shorter, more immediate commercials. It is changing in terms of a new “politique des auteurs,” with the most prestigious ad directors, like Jean-Paul Goude or Jean-Baptiste Mondino, limiting themselves to one well-made film a year, as an “event” (as in Chanel’s 1990 “Egoiste” spot, a success for Goude and for the perfume company). There are also more super-quality promotions like the series of documentaries by famous film directors on celebrated fashion designers—Wim Wenders on Yohji Yamamoto, Martin Scorsese on Giorgio Armani, mid-length films that are hard to categorize, not exactly advertising, not exactly cinema. And commercials are changing as a form of social communication, adapting to the rapid political and social changes of recent times. Almost live, Pepsi-Cola was able to transform the collapse of the Berlin wall into a commercial. Since then, far smaller events in this passage to a new Europe have made their way into advertising: the opening in Leningrad, for example, of a branch of Seppala, a Finnish made-to-order dress company.

Today, unthinkably only a year ago, any kind of communication is possible between East and West, including both the most serious and the craziest reevaluations of capitalism and communism. While Western ads describe an East of serious political discussion and of a traditional proletariat that is often viewed according to the conventions of realist cinema, the East responds with the most trivial images of capitalism, images gone begging from commercials of the 1970s. In the ads of the Hungarian producer, scriptwriter, and director Peter Kozma, for example, everything’s there, from the old-style seductress seen through filters and veils, in a spot for Fabulon perfume for women, to a dusting off of the Greek gods on behalf of Thetis perfume for men. A pervasive presence in commercials from the East—particularly in the most recent ads from China—is an increase in languid women in heavy Western makeup, in sharp contrast to the trends in the West itself. Through extremely artificial sets, these women push gigantic Hollywood-in-the-’50s-style refrigerators and air conditioners, or dream about showers with self-contained water heaters, three of the deepest desires in the Beijing imagination. A fourth is freedom from annoying insects, usually promised in ads for DDT-type sprays that vanished years ago from households in the West.

If one remains somewhat amazed by the number of aerosol hairsprays advertised in China, in seeming obliviousness to the ozone layer, the lack of Western-style commercials full of young people is more easily explained: after Tiananmen, this is surely an effect of political censorship. Certainly many of the anachronisms in Chinese advertising can be explained by the country’s lack of modern fashions in design, to say nothing of its primitive industrial plant. But they also suggest a more subtle political propaganda in which an old-fashioned, consumerist kind of happiness is the order of the land (as if most Chinese could afford those air conditioners and iceboxes). The recent “television histories” of the uprising in Romania and of the Gulf crisis are equally politically adept. Were the Romanian “revolutionaries” really as impoverished as they seemed to be? Or were they trying to promote a true-man-of-the-people look? If the even greater confusion between fiction and news in the Timşoara massacre and in the execution of the Ceausescus created a powerful media event at the turn of 1989–90, one wonders what the effects will be of the manipulation of television by Saddam Hussein and his government. For twenty days, Miqdad Morad, an anonymous announcer on Iraqi TV, was the world’s only contact with Hussein, and the image of a seemingly imminent war. Built up as a double or model of Hussein, dressed in the same double-breasted suits with the same ties and pocket handkerchiefs, Morad, temporarily Iraq’s official face and voice, was an advertising device, a figurehead used to build a solid image of the level-headed super-Arab. This image linked Hussein with the Islamic world and contrasted him to the concurrent TV image of George Bush, the self-indulgent fisherman and golfer and the friend to veterans of America’s unpopular foreign wars. The videotapes of the dictator with some of his hostages, including young children, reinforced his paternalistic front. If they also echoed the famous films of Stalin and Hitler surrounded by children, that had the dubious merit of setting Hussein in a certain charismatic tradition of the strong leader.

Hussein may have lacked a coherent image in the BBC news banks of earlier years, but in 1990 he crafted one that could dominate audiences throughout the world, and that appeared on the covers of almost all the Western news magazines. To sell personalities not yet established, presenting them to the public in a crescendo of expectation, is an old advertising trick. In 1989, for example, the Italian office of Young & Rubicam devised a powerful campaign for a mayoral election in Rome. The candidate was a completely unknown Christian Democrat, made the figurehead of the party slate because his running mates had “too many negatives,” and renamed by the agency Nessuno, or “Nobody,” providing the opportunity for slogans acknowledging what everyone knows but no politician admits: Nobody is worth your vote. Nobody will remember you after the election. And so on. In any case, what “justifies,” if that is the right word, Hussein’s calculated manipulation of his own image is that the practice is now commonplace. The new model of televisual communication moves at will between advertising, news, and the general realm of performance. Not only is no image taboo at this point (think of the pope, as reinterpreted in a South American home furnishings ad in which he kisses a carpet, or, for that matter, in Gran Fury’s piece for this year’s Venice Biennale), but once the image becomes television it seems to lose every historical and moral value. The image of the Chinese boy stopping the tank in June of 1989, for example, was used almost immediately by many news weeklies in ads for themselves. And in “Parents” (TBWA London, directed by Theo Delaney), fictitious home movies of the parents of Noriega, Ceausescu, and Thatcher get a caption: “If only they’d used a Jiffi condom.”

A new London agency, HHCL (Howell Henry Chaldecott Lury), has provoked viewers best by siting its ads precisely within televisual reality. A 1989 campaign for the 24-hour banking system Firstdirect, for example, began with an Orson Welles–style joke: an Audi car commercial was interrupted by an “extraterrestrial,” who declared, “Please do not be alarmed, this is the first attempt to communicate across time!” Then, some weeks later, while Charlotte Rampling appeared in an ad on one channel explaining the benefits of the system, an onscreen subtitle referred the viewer to another channel, where another ad, surprisingly, mused over the bank’s negative traits. Thus the viewer was invited to “zap” channels to get a complete view of the campaign. In England, where both the commercial channels are run by the same network, ITV, this idea may have been more practical than in the United States. One imagines that ABC would be quite reluctant to accept an ad suggesting its viewers turn to NBC or CBS. And in many countries it would be close to impossible to plan a similar series of commercials because of the difficulty in coordinating between unruly schedules. But even if this commercial remains an isolated experiment, it could open new paths, and not only in advertising.

Another HHCL campaign took top honors at 1990’s International Advertising Film Festival in Cannes. On the street, a man listens to a poorly recorded song. (In one spot the actor is one of these ads’ two directors, Steve Lowe.) As he listens he holds up a series of placards that gloss, badly, the song’s lyrics, ending with the sign, “I need to hear it on a Maxell.” Some years ago there was a special-effects boom in TV advertising, in which the directors of these spots, who call themselves the Molotov Brothers (Lowe and Martin Brierley), were prominent. Here they drop the tricks to rely on simple creative invention. But if this antipub, as it’s called in France, replaces fancy electronics with the basics, it still tries to surprise, to dislocate the viewer. The tendency is shared by many current agencies. In the entertaining “Ode to a Pea,” directed by David Smith and produced by BMP DDB Needham, London, we see a single pea lying on a white plate; a voice gently murmurs a poem to it; after a few seconds it is brutally squashed with a fork, and we are told to buy Batchelors Mushy peas. “Le blanc” (The white), produced by DDB Needham in Paris and directed by Alan Orpin, advertises a new Audi by giving the viewer 25 seconds of absolute blankness, after which the car arrives. In the justly famous “Art Gallery,” directed by Henry Sandbank for Rubin Postaer and Associates in Los Angeles, a Honda Accord hangs like a painting on a white wall. In a few seconds a man somehow manages to steal it, leaving the wall empty.

Ads like these that focus on strong ideas, in contrast to the facile analogies of earlier commercials, can be seen everywhere these days. But commercials are also resorting to an esthetic of violence, particularly to fight racism and child abuse. “No al razzismo,” (No to racism) produced by Saatchi & Saatchi Advertising in Milan and directed by Alessandro D’Alatri, provoked considerable debate in Italy: a young African immigrant is shown literally crucified, shot in Pasolini-like black and white, while the sound track represents our indifference through silly quotes from TV and advertising. In “I love you, I love you not,” produced by Young & Rubicam in Santiago and directed by Ricardo Misito, a little girl reciting “I love you, I love you not” pulls not at the petals of a daisy but at her doll’s hair, as a voice tells us that 50,000 Chilean children a year are abused by their parents. Internationally, a number of socially oriented campaigns have begun to follow this kind of shock approach, in response to the basic question of the effectiveness of language—can a brutal situation be conveyed by a gentle ad?—and also to social and political change. As governments focus their media machinery on the threat of drugs, for example, another harsh vocabulary encroaches on ad time. Antidrug campaigns, in fact, were the first to bring so-called social themes into advertising throughout the world. “Cocaine,” directed by Tony Kaye for the Campaign for a Drug-Free America, is a sort of summa teorica of innumerable previous commercials: instead of snorting cocaine, a man inhales from the barrel of a gun. Then he pulls the trigger.

In England, a soft-toned antilittering commercial from 1988, which humorously depicted the litterbug as a pig, has been replaced in 1990 with the horror of “Duck” and “Rat,” produced by HHCL and directed by Kaye, in which a duck swimming in a pond is strangled by discarded plastic, and the contents of a dissected rat’s stomach show how the animal has battened on street garbage. Alcohol and reckless driving have also received rough treatment, particularly in Australia and in Great Britain. In the English director Brenda Loader’s “Coffin” (Faulds Advertising, Edinburgh), a widow dresses her husband’s body for his funeral; in Loader’s “Casualty” (Waldron Allen Henry & Thompson, London), a nurse helps a boy paralyzed by a car accident to take his first steps. Australian directors prefer the moment just after the accident, or the arrival of the ambulance, when pain is at its worst. “Hearse” (Clemenger, Sydney) shows a group of young people after a crash, still in shock, and still showing the effects of alcohol and drugs. In “Girlfriend” (Grey Advertising Melbourne), the parents of a girl on the operating table after a car accident attack her boyfriend, who was driving: “You’re a bloody idiot!” But this new and terrifying realism has not completely replaced the earlier preference for euphemism, particularly in other countries. The Danes, for example, have treated the same subject with a degree of humor: “Far Out” (Hansen & Bach, Ålborg, directed by Morten Rasmussen in 1989) shows a gas station with a king-sized beer can in place of a gas pump. One knows that the cars that fill up from that can will instantly crash.

One kind of socially oriented advertising that has grown gentler of late is the campaign against AIDS. If little has changed in terms of the need for and means of prevention, a need still expressed through ironic commercials for condoms (among the best, the French “Les preservatifs vous disent bonnes vacances” [Condoms wish you a good holiday], by Ecom of Paris), we no longer see the horrific campaigns of years past. The desire is no longer to frighten people; it’s enough to remind them of fear with more dryly communicated deaths, or with mournful embraces that transform two lovers into skeletons. Here advertising reflects changes in the general perception of the crisis, from the initial shock to the awareness of a problem that touches not just individuals but all of society. A number of ads face treatment of the ill and of those who are HIV positive: thus McCann-Erickson Düsseldorf gives us “Anna’s Birthday,” directed by Michael Stibel, which shows the sad birthday of a stricken child whose friends will never come to visit.

The increasing number of social campaigns of different kinds includes commercials that address minorities, or that express the desires of quite small communities. The Canadian “The Judgment,” directed by Jean-Claude Lauzon for Foster McCann-Erickson in Montreal, describes society’s response to a retarded man looking for work: a computer file brings up the words “Intellectual Handicap” and “Rejected.” Not all such ads are so somber-toned. In “Lipstick,” directed by Kaye, one of the award-winning ads made by TBWA for the London optician’s federation on behalf of “Eye-Care Awareness,” a woman who’s missed her eye exams messes up her looks with poorly applied makeup. In “Bus Stop,” directed by David Kung, a man waiting at a bus stop accidentally climbs aboard a racing fire truck. The logical extension of this approach is an ad made for the Norwegian association of certified barbers by JBR in Oslo, which shows the risks run by clients who don’t go to a board-licensed haircutter. (The risk, of course, is a radical Mohawk.) But such spots by themselves aren’t really new—advertising has never been limited to companies selling goods, and any trade association or lobby group that can afford to can use the medium to promote its interests. What’s new is the use of small, minimal stories that are genuinely touching, bringing a surprising seriousness to the inter-program break.

Many of the ads in this genre are directed toward the care of young children. In the splendid “Prize Giving,” directed by Steve Campbell and produced by Waldron Allen Henry & Thompson in London for the British Dyslexia Association, a dyslexic child is given a schoolbook that he will never be able to read. In the French “Elodie et Sandy,” directed by Grégoire Delacourt for CLM/BBDO in Paris, one child is stricken with muscular dystrophy, her sister is not. Their appearance together in a strong simple image confronts us with the issue more directly than a grimmer commercial might. Michael Franks’ “In the Dark,” which he directed for the Toronto firm of Harrod & Mirlin, tries to persuade parents not to send their children to bed by themselves but to read them a story before they fall asleep. Actually, children are the most frequent protagonists of ads in recent years. Their popularity corresponds to a decrease in the appearance of women—we are seeing, in fact, a fading of the idea of the woman solely as the object of male desire.

This is partly the result of the long feminist battle against confinement to the roles reserved for women by advertising—housewife, sexpot, silly young girl. But it also reflects a reduction of explicit sexuality in contemporary society, which is frightened of AIDS and more conservative in its habits. There is far less female nudity in commercials than three or four years ago. If anything, it is now the men who undress, as in recent underwear campaigns for Dim (with a commercial directed by Chico Bialas) and for Calvin Klein. In a magazine ad for Fenicia, an Italian shirt company, a man appears completely naked, protected where it counts by a scrap of shirt. Women, on the other hand, are shown with a new mobility and independence. In a commercial for Chanel no. 5, for example, Ridley Scott uses the actress Carole Bouquet and his extravagant, free style of filmmaking to suggest an elusive and decisive type of woman who can get and do whatever she wants, crossing oceans and deserts, and moving from the arms of businessmen to macho types to boys she picks up in the street. You must remember, however, that she finds this autonomy in a carefully cultivated style that includes Chanel perfume.

In “Fashion with Punch,” directed by Jaime de la Pena for Lorente-Moussons of Barcelona to advertise woolens, a woman meets a man’s advances with a hard kick to the groin. The tables have been turned decisively; it is difficult to imagine an ad that would treat a woman in the same way. (Though a magazine fashion ad by the Italian firm of Dolce & Gabbana comes close.) Aline Isserman’s “La violence conjugale est inacceptable” (Conjugal violence is unacceptable), produced by Ecom, very delicately returns the issue of abuse to the real world (and is one of the few social commercials of this type directed by a woman): a terrified wife waits for her husband to come home, while information about domestic violence in France flashes by on the screen. There are still ads, of course, that rework the stereotype of the homemaker, as in the hilarious “Lure of the Cooking Pot” (Dentsu, Tokyo), directed by Tsutomu Iwamoto, in which an office worker telephoning his house hears the music of fish cooking on the new Matsushita grill, and immediately runs home to his wife (and to supper). But “Sophy,” directed by Pongpaiboon Siddhigui for HDM in Bangkok, is somewhat more feminist: a girl who has her period is upset because the men in her office can’t seem to understand her problems. (Naturally everything changes after she switches her brand of tampon.)

Directors who rarely work in advertising still play occasionally with the theme of violence against women, perhaps because the subject remains a standby in the movies. Roman Polanski, who has returned to commercials after a long absence, has done an ad for the Italian edition of Vanity Fair which shows a girl, Emmanuelle Seigner (who was in Polanski’s movie Frantic), pursued by a mysterious man in a building in Milan. Love? Violence? The girl manages to escape in an elevator, leaving her pursuer with only the cover of the magazine. But spots like this, like almost all attempts at advertising by famous film directors, are super-stylish exercises more than really up-to-date commercials. Martin Scorsese’s work for Armani is particularly perfect, especially one in which a girl visiting her ex-boyfriend’s home in his absence discovers that he has a new lover and sits in his room, in tears and in drops of his (Armani) perfume. In keeping with an old habit, advertising still calls upon the directors of films to repeat themselves in 30 or 60 seconds. Ridley Scott has reworked Blade Runner for Nissan cars, and, for Colgate, the mythical scenario of Legend, though that movie’s struggle between Good and Evil is transferred to a chess game between toothpaste and the wicked tartar. Even Giuseppe Tornatore exaggerates the we-are-all-Italians effects of his overrated Cinema Paradiso in “La Piattaforma” (The platform), for IP gasoline (Promarco Advertising, Milan), set on an oil-drilling platform where a group of workers is trying to watch a world-cup soccer match on TV. (The weather is bad, and the reception is poor.)

Many ads from around the world address everyday domestic problems, particularly father/son relationships. Echoing the changes in advertising’s portrayal of women, mothers seem to be moving out of commercials to make room for newly sensitive and understanding dads; as though women’s refusal to recognize the roles that male society has assigned them has demanded the assumption of those roles by men. In Manami Niro’s “Morning of the Wedding,” produced by Asahi Tsushin Advertising, Tokyo, for a Japanese breakfast food, a daughter getting ready to be married realizes her father’s sadness when she hears a slight, almost imperceptible change in his usual rhythm of breakfast making in the next room. In “Respect,” the best spot this year about AIDS, directed by Stak Aivaliotis for DFSD Bozell Advertising and the London Drug Addiction Centre, a father sitting in his daughter’s bedroom talks of the difficulties of raising children; he is about to leave for her funeral. Many other young directors are working on domestic stories like these, and in an antipub vein quite different from the triumphant exhibitionism of much traditional advertising. They also share an enjoyment of images from other media, introducing elements from movies and from culture at large into their commercials. This openness improves the quality of advertising, making it more interactive with cinema and other forms of visual art.

This is where advertising becomes interesting, becomes a field to be watched in future, even if much of it still comes across as the usual everyday bore, or at best as adorable bad taste. Yet how can one explain the appeal of commercials like “The Rain Can’t Beat Me,” its star a Japanese wig that won’t come loose, even in a downpour; or of the Thai Snow White whose dandruff scares off the creatures of the wood; or of “Mr. Toilet,” an Italian toilet that sings an operatic aria when cleaned with Nelson Verde; or of “Avion,” an unforgettable airplane flight with a Chilean boy scout who doesn’t use Brooks foot powder (and you can tell); or of “Poker Face,” a masterpiece by Iwamoto, with a clerk so tired that he no longer smiles at his clients and bosses until saved by Guronsan Strong Oral Liquid tonic? Not only can you sell anything through advertising, but you can do so in the most unlikely way. In Uruguay there’s an ad for a French course, its subject a boy who is depressed because he hasn’t read Lacan and doesn’t know what “post-Modern” means. Advertising is full of surprises, even if—especially if—you do know the meaning of “post-Modernism.”

Marco Giusti is a writer on film who lives in Rome. He is the author of the cult trash TV show Blob.

Translated from the Italian by Marguerite Shore.