PRINT May 1997

Q & A

Copy Shopping

As a professor of mine told me twenty years ago, “Advertising is the folklore of American childhood.” Indeed, print and TV ads are so much a part of us—their chirpy jingles and inane phrases having colonized our brains—that consciousness today can seem like one long commercial interruption.

Maybe it’s for this reason that we love to hate the messages from our sponsors. Print and TV ads can make an armchair cultural critic out of even the most indolent consumer. We asked a group of artists, writers, and critics to select an ad that had moved or provoked them in recent months and to tell us why.

BARBARA KRUGER (artist) A guy is being pushed into an emergency room. Lots of gorgeous long shots and excruciating close-ups. Lots of ER action, but prettier. The guy’s on the operating table. The ambient din is growing louder and louder. Nurses and doctors are everywhere. Everything has a cold, blue-green cast to it. And then all the random noises, all the machine stuff and heartbeats, all the whispers and movements start to coalesce into a weird but familiar riff: Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love.” What the hell is going on here? But then, do you really have to ask? I mean, it’s so obvious, right? It’s the new Levi’s Wide Leg Jean commercial. Very pretty. Very Trainspotting. Very smart.

DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF (author, Playing the Future, Media Virus) The most disturbing magazine ad I’ve seen recently is a two-page spread for IBM Secureway computer services. On the left, the bust of a meekly smiling, middle-aged businessman sitting amidst shadows with much too much ominous headroom. On the facing page, the headline: “Will a 14-year-old SOCIOPATH bring my company to its knees?”

So IBM want you to think big business’ greatest fear is psychotic children—the ultimate early adapters, mutant space children from Village of the Damned who can read your thoughts, blow things up with their minds, and, of course, break into your company’s computers. What’s for sale: “ethical hackers”—the same exact kids who would happily sabotage your system will “protect” it as long as you pay them.

LUC SANTE (author, Lowlife, Evidence) The recent Disney Institute ad makes my hair stand on end. “Having transformed a plant into a giraffe, Amy was ready to stick her neck out in boxing aerobics,” the copy says. In the photo, a woman laughs rapturously with one hand extended palm out, fingers spread in a gesture of helpless wonder; the other hand proudly clutches some monstrously zoomorphic topiary with one blue eye in the middle of its bulbous head.

What seems to be for sale is a Learning Annex program in a Club Med setting. Clocked and engineered by the mouse syndicate, it’s a derivation of the American compulsion to fill leisure time with pointless activity, which has lately achieved a new degree of inanity, in concert with the shadowy menace called self-actualization. The infantilization and regimentation already active in this formula is multiplied in force by the Disney factor.

The name Disney Institute (sounds like Kinsey Institute) nods at research and education while undertaking the opposite, deploying precision, labor, and vast sums of money in service of vacuous frivolity. Disney’s mission is to take the mickey out of pleasure, to eliminate thought from art, and—as in William S. Burrough’s definition of heroin’s job—to degrade and simplify the client.

DIANA THATER (artist) I am currently enjoying a TV commercial for GM’s electric car. It takes place on a seemingly unpopulated suburban street one early morning where, suddenly, all the neighborhood electric appliances switch on automatically, hop off the counters and rush out the front doors of their homes. The camera zooms out and we find the entire street lined with herds of anxious blenders and vacuum cleaners. Then, at the end of the street, “it” appears—the electric car, reflected in the shiny Plexi visor of a little food processor. It moves like a silver hovercraft toward the camera, silent and driverless, a vision of the future, the ultimate appliance.

This commercial is so much better than current films like Mars Attacks! that scoff at the well-designed, pre-cyberpunk, science-fiction futures we once believed in. It assures us that the future we’ve been waiting for is already here and looks exactly how we once hoped it would.

ELAINE SHOWALTER (TV critic, People) I like the ad with the Energizer bunny. The one with the bunny hunters. You know where they are out in the field trying to spot the rabbit? The mock ethnographic quest makes me laugh every time I see it. The seriousness of it. I am someone who never buys batteries, but I love that commercial. Energizer does a public service every time they run it.

STEVEN SHAVIRO (author, Doom Patrols) There’s a TV ad for MCI that says, “On the Internet, there’s no age, no race, no gender.” These words flash across the screen, alternating with shots of the senior citizens, minorities, women, et al., who presumably will no longer be disadvantaged. Thanks to what? At the end, the screen goes black, with just three, electronic blue-green letters in the center: MCI. MCI isn’t pitching a product that the viewer can run out and buy. Instead it’s pitching the Internet itself, as free as air—except that the network lines are owned largely by the message’s sponsor.

CATHERINE OPIE (artist) With all the billboards in LA, driving through the landscape is like flipping through a magazine at the hair salon. Recently I’ve seen these “Don’t abuse your kids” billboards popping up a lot. They depict menacingly oversized, distorted parents yelling things out across the sign like, “You are so stupid!” There is one in particular of a giant Asian woman with lipstick smeared across her face like she’s some John Wayne Gacy clown. She’s yelling, “You stupid little . . . ! ,” then underneath we are told not to abuse our children. I think if I were an abused kid looking at these billboards I’d have major flashbacks or something.

LARI PITTMAN (artist) Sunday mornings. Local Cambodian television on cable. An intensely megaphoned, severely echo-chambered, female voice introduces me to the wonders of a neighborhood food market. Much more accustomed to rapid, frenzied editing, I’m relieved by the thirty-second close-ups of canned goods and five-pound sacks of flour and grain. The hand-held camera is in no hurry and lovingly appreciates everything. All visuals are slowed down, but the voice remains excited, if not somewhat panicked. This lovely disparity is best heightened by turning up the volume very loudly. My companion does not appreciate this.

LISA SCHWARZBAUM (journalist/critic, Entertainment Weekly) I can’t take my eyes off that car crash of an ad campaign for a new automobile called the Catera—which sounds to me more like a flu strain than a luxury vehicle. The slogan, “the Caddy that zigs,” implies that we’re talking about a swingin’ new model of Cadillac. In print, the tagline is done up in the distinctive Rea Irvin typeface of The New Yorker—with its suggestion of class-with-a-capital-C. On air, the “zigging” is done by an animated little bird that hatches to the beat of a different drummer and bops around in a kind of jaunty pimp roll. (Is that who’s buying?) The tagline is a marvel of meaninglessness—right up there with “the soup that eats like a meal”—and the campaign is so clueless that it sticks in my head (much longer, no doubt, than in the minds of serious car buyers).

BARBARA EHRENREICH (journalist) I actually just wrote an essay about this trend of ads for drugs like Rogaine or Claritin—prescription drugs that were never before formally advertised to the public. The copy never states exactly what the drug or medicine does. For instance, the ad for Zocor starts with a riff about how your grandchildren want you to stay alive. Then it says “Shouldn’t you be asking your doctor about Zocor?” And you think "Gee, I guess I should! Drugs that used to be advertised in journals for doctors are being promoted directly to the public but in this coy, disempowering way. The impact is that these beautiful but nondescript appeals for chemical substances are no longer aimed at those with the knowledge to administer them properly, but to the Id of the general population.

Thyrza Nichols Goodeve is a frequent contributor to Artforum.