PRINT September 1998


advertising doubt

NO ONE’S CERTAIN HOW many new advertising or media columns have started up this year (four writers I know have been asked to pen them for different publications), but it’s already clear that 1998 will be remembered as the year we got wise. We the people are acting on our inalienable right to gather in coffee shops where murmurs of Dan Rather’s bias may be heard, to rate the Super Bowl commercials, to visit Websites where the big city page-ones are slightingly compared, to read of the advance or retreat of favorite pundits, to be addressed as a knowing insider, to go into the interpretation business pro bono publico, to mount the electronic stage and there exhibit our special knack for decoding and debunking.

It is an inspiring sight, is it not? This wholesale piercing of veils, this society of pioneers’ descendants, noble in their imperviousness to propaganda. Enlightened opinion—whether issuing from cultural—studies departments or the pens of cyberecstatics like George Gilder—holds that we have entered a new age of radical democracy; a replaying of 1968 or 1848 or maybe even 1789; a great flowering of heteroglossia, the attunement of a glorious choir of diverse voices. No longer will The People remain passive subjects, washed hither and yon by tides of mass-produced entertainment and establishment editorial. One can almost hear the captains of consciousness grumbling in their Cadillacs as they race for safety.

Hear them, that is, were they not so loudly and so boldly leading The People’s advance themselves.

Madison Avenue, for one, should have been a prominent victim of the proliferation of critics. It is, after all, among the most dictatorial and openly commercial elements of our national culture. But, after some rough years early in the decade when it briefly seemed that nobody could sell anything to the young, the advertising industry has taken our doubts to heart. Today they cause our tubes to abound with visions of reprehensible fakeness, of the manipulative manufacture of images, and, conversely, of products that stand outside the evil adman’s repertoire of deceit. They now go beyond the simple self-referentiality of Energizer Bunnies or Miller Lite’s “Dick” spots to encourage our biggest doubts: Doubts about the objectivity of the news. Doubts about the trustworthiness of celebrity testimonials. Doubts about the beneficence of television.

Commercials for the new Fox News cable channel, starring TV journalist Brit Hume and former judge Catherine Crier, bravely encourage viewers to save their most “critical thoughts” for the news hour. Another shows a microphone cable knotted into a hangman’s noose and notes how “three out of four Americans believe the news media is biased, that its coverage isn’t fair and balanced,” but how at Fox, the network owned by the man who virtually invented tabloid journalism, “we believe in trial by jury, not by media.”

The swelling of suspicion has also revitalized the most down-to-earth ad campaigns, giving new credibility to that old staple, the man-on-the-street testimonial. Even advertising for products like Clairol Daily Defense, said to be “Haircare for the real world,” begins by showing us the mendacity of the false world: “It’s easy to get hair this beautiful,” a voice sneers over pictures of an overly-made-up blonde, “in a TV commercial!” We gawk as real people develop brand loyalty to the pregnancy test that let them off the hook, as figures whose realness is carefully noted describe their real—life relationship with the practical Hyundai.

Advertising has always been obsessed with authenticity and the sanctity of the brand—think of The Real Thing and our national spats with governments that harbor brand—counterfeiters. But in recent years, with the population aroused against fakeness, this obsession has taken on an air of moral urgency. “Don’t Fake the Flava!” screams a billboard pushing Captain Morgan Spiced Rum (an industry leader in the authenticity trade, lately sicking their trademarked pirate on all manner of transparently foolish ads, each of which the jolly buccaneer defaces with his mark). Those oft-analyzed commercials for Sprite embrace a horror not only of media but of money itself—which is then resolved by the assurance that image is nothing, that the virtues of Sprite are a thing beyond the tawdry reach of the marketplace. Radio spots feature jingle-singers who confess, in midjingle, that they are in fact merely hired jingle singers, that their enthusiasm for the lemon-flavored soda water is trumped up; that they have accepted money to work their homogenized magic. TV commercials feature basketball star Grant Hill offering a hypernormal, Muzak-accompanied testimonial about how the lemon-flavored soda “refreshes” him but every time he says something nice about Sprite, cash registers ring and great fat piles of cash appear at the bottom of the screen. He has been paid—paid!—to say these things!

By some weird coincidence, perhaps one of the many made possible by demographics, by the fact that my tastes in TV (along with my oh-so-corrosive doubts about advertising) are as easy to predict as the next guy’s, a great deal of the advertising discourse of skepticism/authenticity revolves around sports, particularly basketball. The game is said to be a drama not just of teams, but of dreams, of moral purity and the corrupting forces of the market. Nike used to run ads comparing basketball to revolution in its spiritual intensity, and another series in which old hoopsters talked lovingly about the way the game was played back in the innocent ’70s, back before filthy lucre had polluted it. Today there’s the rise of the Women’s National Basketball Association as an all—around marker of authenticity. Star guard Cynthia Cooper appears in one commercial rhyming about how the WNBA is “keeping it real,” and in another for Bud Light, applying her blessing to a manly game of one-on-one. And then there’s twenty-year-old LA Laker guard Kobe Bryant, whose promise as the next great athlete-brand is directly linked to his nonmediated style. “Our society has become more sophisticated and can see through a contrived strategy to develop an icon,” one marketer working on contriving exactly such an icon recently told Advertising Age. “Kobe Bryant comes across fresh and natural and not contrived.” (All of which contrasts with the recent sinking of the commercially overladen Shaquille O’Neal, the Edmund Fitzgerald of pro sports, into the bottomless seas of celebrity overexposure.)

The Sprite spots are clever stuff, “ironic” even, in their exaltation of the audience’s skepticism. But there are, of course, deeper ironies here that your skepticism will never touch. Even as Sprite announces that “Image is nothing,” its parent company enters the fizzy liquid into an unprecedented 100-year fee-free deal for mutual marketing support with the NBA—a quid pro quo in which image is, in fact, just about everything. And only a few months before Brit Hume began announcing to the world that Fox’s reporting is hard enough for even the most cynical, he, along with other correspondents, appeared at the annual conference of the Association of National Advertisers to plug his conglomerate employer’s ability to deliver all those questioning minds to the highest bidder. The noxious combination of journalistic sincerity and bottomless commercialism that resulted was evidently too much even for those in the industry. “Please excuse me if I gag the next time one of these journalists preaches about the sacrosanct duties he or she has to dispense every day,” wrote Rance Crain in Advertising Age after the event had run its course.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the proliferation of media and advertising critics is the sense in which the vast majority of the criticism produced does nothing but fuel the machine. When reading through today’s great gushing of popular advertising criticism, I am reminded of the last time such a tidal wave hit: it was the dawn of the ’60s, and from Vance Packard’s Hidden Persuaders (published in 1957) to Betty Friedan’s immensely influential Feminine Mystique (1963), Americans were universally up in arms against the engineers of consent. Madison Avenue was manipulating us, it was lying to us, it was forcing us into foolish and insulting stereotypes, and we knew it. The funny thing was, Madison Avenue knew we knew, and if our goodwill could be had by simply indulging our worst suspicions about their business, it was a bargain at the price. By the middle of the decade, the ad industry had given up trying to refute Packard and was all but plagiarizing his books in a rush to establish that this whiskey, or that compact vehicle, or this rent-a-car agency was the thing that would finally deliver you from those awful waste-makers, those pyramid-climbers, those status-seekers.

That’s why my favorite of all the contemporary advertising columns is USA Today’s “Ad Track.” In keeping with that paper’s traditional pseudo-populism, the column simply runs each significant new campaign by a panel whose judgment of how “effective” the commercial is comes complete with percentages and demographic breakdowns. The endeavor sounds like daring back talk, but in fact the columnist and her sources wind up serving the industry as a gratis focus group. It’s the world as frogs and lizards: the frogs representing the most passive of all possible consumers, staring dully at a neon sign and croaking out the glowing syllables. Ah, but we media columnists, we freebooting flamers, we lizards are smart, we can see through all that, and in our outrage we wax shrill, angry, irrational, and resentful by turns—until we, too, are granted our turn in the spotlight.