"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 8 May 2000. Updated every WEEKDAY.


Dead Spots

The chill hand of death is customarily understood to be a creeping, subtle, silent sort of trope, but nowadays death is in the throes of a massive televisual coming out party. By this we mean much more than the inert, numbingly familiar body counts racked up in hospital dramas, cable broadcasts of The Matrix, and flop-sweated Saturday Night Live skits. No, Death — both the reaper himself and his unmistakable handiwork — can now be countenanced with cold eyes in an astonishing array of TV spots, for Kias and jeeps, Power Bars, online relocation services, insurance companies, kitchen accessories and iced tea. It's only a matter of time before Death navigates the all-important Mark Harmon crossover and scores his own sitcom pilot. Then again, think what a bitch it must be to be his agent.

The poster spot for this macabre turn in pitchwork is the "Grim Reaper" ad for Jeep Cherokee. A menacing hand picks up a defenseless baby sparrow on the ground. We pan back to see the Hooded One in all his bony glory, and fear the worst for our barely feathered friend. But instead, the harvester of souls simply replaces the little fella in his treetop nest and saunters away. He then goes on to skip stones across a pond and cavort merrily through a meadow, all over the strains of The Lovin' Spoonful chestnut, "(What a Day for a) Daydream." Cut to tagline: "Jeep Grand Cherokee: How will it change you?"

This little message does perform the estimable service of confirming the long-suspected connection between human extinction and the mid-tempo musical sedatives provided by John Sebastian's leering narc foursome. But in other respects, it cheerily upends a whole cottage industry of ad interpretation. From the deranged labors of Subliminal Seduction guru Wilson Bryan Keyes — who professed to find a whole sweaty bath house of sexual imagery and language in ice cubes and Howard Johnson's menus (one of his later books, we kid you not, was called The Clam Plate Orgy) — to the dim, latter-day effusions of professional paint-by-numbers alarmists such as Stewart Ewen and Sut Jhally, it has been an unassailable article of faith that all advertising hinges on the naughty bits. Establish the all-important product-crotch cathexis, and you have them right where you want them: Purchasing an unending stream of stuff in the touching yet doomed conviction that, with the addition of that one, elusive, final accessory — right there — they will, in blessed consumer repose, be transformed into a state of seething desirability, and what's more, could well start actually getting laid.

Cut to life-force dialectic. As Good Doctor Freud would remind us, it's but a tiny conceptual pirouhette from the naughty bits to the naught bit: Thwarted, irrational critters that we humans are, we find perverse consolation in the apprehension of our end, and are even driven actively to court it. The sex drive and the death instinct are both, at least by Freud's reckoning, elemental life forces, which might well be repressed, sublimated, or selectively and neurotically indulged, but never completely banished from the good old wooly precincts of the human psyche.

Still, it's hard to see much in the way of the visceral, unarticulated Unb ekannt in these new millennial death ads. Indeed, as our Cherokee text illustrates, the point is to domesticate our Reaper Pal into a figure of fun, not to cast him as the realization of our rich, conflicting stable of urges to get it on and extinguish ourselves. And other signature death ads seek to achieve the same seamless effect of weaving the stuff of ultimate dread into the banal, commodified everyday. The stereo concern Aiwa's "controversial" spot "Hear se," for example, plies the time-honored ad tableau of young speed-happy driver rocking out to road tunes — in this case, the Queen frat chant "Another One Bites the Dust." He gesticulates and sings along in a way that clearly nonpluses his square older companion riding shotgun — another standard-issue stock figure in cool-accessory advertising, placed so as to remind us of the superior taste and attitude of his younger confrere. But whatever, dude — our hero is waving to his fellow drivers, nodding vigorously in tune connoiseurship, punching the air in sheer rockin' exhiliration. Then the camera pans overhead to show that, yes, he is spiriting away another dust-biting corpse in the confines of a hearse.

So much for asking not for whom the bell tolls. The formulaic tedium of the ad's content signals the true ghastliness of the culture's brave new huckster-reaper synthesis. Domesticating death this far down flattens out all its, uh, trademark frisson — its ability, owned up to even by such signature postmodern raconteurs as Don DeLillo, to drive home the frailty, singularity, beauty and irreplaceability of our own humble portion of human experience. Now, in an industry that regards any flourish of human subjectivity with roughly the same relish that William Calley reserved for Vietnamese villagers, this terminal, truth-dispensing function of death is being disarmed. In the classic visual vocabulary of advertising, dying is the ultimate doofus move; it's what the losers do. The rest of us get to live and gloat — and pile up yet more cool stuff. This is the far-from-subtle subtext of nearly all death-flogging TV spots, from the eloquently titled "De ad Guy's Paycheck" commercial for Conseco Insurance, which has the poor dead sap Bob surrounded by fellow office workers who neglect even to note his moldering condition, to Kia's "Uncle Carl" ad, which dramatizes the hazard of carting around a loved one's ashes in a car cursed with bad suspension. "Uncle Carl" culminates with one of the dead loser's nephews vacuuming his spilled remains off the back seat, in a fittingly abject homage to Pulp Fiction's protracted, soul-numbing backseat corpse clean-up scene. Move.com also makes sport of avuncular extinction, with an asshole nephew scarcely bothering to contain his glee at making off with an inheritance windfall at the geezer's funeral. For unalloyed gravesite hilarity, meanwhile, Powerbar has a pall bearer passing out and sending the dearly departed sprawling akimbo at ground level, setting up the thoughtful tag line "Don't bonk." While this latter tableau would seem to pivot on the weedy pall bearer's physical humiliation, the real force of the punchline stems from his conversion of the corpse into a pratfall prop. Heh, as Butthead would say, heh.

Next: There's Death, and then there's death. And then there's the resurrection of Rob Harris [Next