"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 5 March 1996. Updated every WEEKDAY.

Ad About You


[Media and Democracy Congress]


Though the program for the

Media and Democracy Congress

panel on "Commercialism:

The Quest for Truth in a

Material World" mentioned

seduction, the chair's opening

remarks must have seemed just a

tad too racy for many of the

material(ist) boys and girls

there. For a moment, it seemed

less a stuffy conference filled

with a wannabe media elite, and

more a scene filled with the

charged promise of encounter

straight out of a Bugle Boy ad.

Those who misheard panel chair

Makani Themba's appraisal of

commercialism - "advertising is

the missionary position" - are

to be forgiven, however, because

even if the reference was to

advertising's position as the

"missionary of culture," there's

no question that the entire set

of speakers thinks we're fucked.


[Sponsored Life]

According to the assembled

speakers, advertising has

invaded us as surely as a third

date, and we are definitely

unprotected. Village Voice

columnist Leslie Savan spoke of

the way that the language of

advertising has infiltrated our

lives, its catchphrases becoming

"thought replacements." Baffler

editor Tom Frank warned that

"uncharted regions of private

life are being colonized by

corporations." UNPLUG's Marianne

Manilov raised the specter of

pedophilia when she warned

against Channel One's assault on

unsuspecting and captive



[The Baffler]

Then again, are we really on the

receiving end of capitalism's

frontal assault, or are we just

getting fingered by the

Invisible Hand? The most

compelling arguments presented

about advertising, and its

future, had less to do with

commercialism's obviousness than

with its inevitable

transparency. Public Relations

watchdog John Stauber claimed

that "PR is stealth," and Savan

provoked a self-righteous chuckle

from the crowd when she quoted a

Seinfeld staffer on the show's

blatant product placement:

name-brand products are used

"for verisimilitude."


[H.L. Mencken]

In light of these comments, the

idea of hearing self-proclaimed

leftists compliment Frank's H.L.

Mencken-channelling-P.T. Barnum

self-promotion (as they seemed

to do whenever he swept through

a room) becomes less glaringly

disingenuous. His hucksterism is

cheerfully retrograde and amusingly

conspicuous. What's more

disturbing, and, according to

the panel, more dangerous, is

the future of advertising, a

future which will probably look

a lot like - you guessed it -




As Savan noted, "the whole show

is an ad." An ad for a

lifestyle and not a brand, sure -

but the vertical expansion of

multinationals means it's more

and more likely that one

corporation could furnish all of

the wardrobe, nutrition, and

information needs of an entire

clique. Amway works for us.



Still, as the Web has proved, you

can also attempt to sell the

entire lifestyle without

necessarily equipping all of it.

Sites like toyota.com and

leggs.com, advice columns, movie

reviews and all, were created,

reports Advertising Age,

"because there aren't enough

good media sites to advertise

on." These online infomercials

are sometimes seen as the Web's

baby steps towards fruition as a

"real" medium, and pundits

compare them to the Procter &

Gamble sponsored (and scripted)

soap operas of yesteryear. But

to us such sponsored content

seems more like the future than

the past.


[J. Walter Thompson]

Even more likely, as the

J. Walter Thompson site makes

clear, is the future of ads as

content. Their private screening

service, which provides a

personal Web page of your

favorite ads, is provided so

"you can enjoy our show without

the usual programming

interruptions we've become

accustomed to on TV." This is a

level of "smart marketing" that

the New Media careerists can

only dream of, and its

presentation of come-on as

entertainment makes Manilov's

talk of "ad-free zones"

prescient, not radical.



After all, if the whole show is

an ad, then why sell the spaces

in between? Of course, the pace

of popular culture's

content-ad-content has become so

ingrained that a switch to all

ad would probably jar all but

the most dedicated MTV viewer.

Providers worried about

disrupting an entrenched viewing

rhythm should look to

Time-Warner, whose hour-long

infomercial for "Rolling

Stone's Sounds of the '80s" is

interrupted by a 20-second

"rant" by Paramount Television's

Duckman character. A word from

the sponsored, if you will.


[Private Screening Room]

Interestingly, the final minutes

of the Commercialism panel

itself broke for a commercial

announcement - or maybe it was

content in search of an ad - as

both the invited guests and the

audience pondered the ability of

the left to market itself. Frank

may have argued that "hip is not

radical," that it is indeed "no

more threatening to corporate

ideology as casual days are to

worker efficiency," but the

question everyone seemed to be

asking was "Can radical be hip?"


[The Baffler Boys]

The Baffler's own position (as

some hideous but diverting cross

between Forced Exposure and The

Nation) would seem to answer in

the affirmative. Indeed, Frank

held up the Baffler as the

potential prophylactic to

corporate America's lecherous

desires: "there are a million

stories of hypocrisy to be

told," he cried, "do it

yourself... we have." But in

truth, Frank's dazzling and

delirious rant - itself as much

a collection of buzzwords and

slogans as any spot for Levi's -

did more to sell his own

magazine than to encourage

others to write their own.



Which is, of course, just fine

with us. Fact is, few

anti-consumerist consumer

publications harangue on as

entertainingly as the Baffler.

Panelist Mark Crispin Miller put

it well when he noted that the

left has long forgotten the

important aspect of pleasure in

propaganda. Not without merit

does middle America view

anti-consumerists as "the ones

who want to break into people's

houses and steal the roast out

of their pots."


[Black Panther Coloring Book]

Then again, radical propaganda

that would have us roast our

pigs, such as the Black Panther

Coloring Book, is nothing new.

Some sells are easier than

others: it's no fault of

advertising that it's at least

willing to follow through on its

sweet nothings, and ream us

until we're dead. And, unlike

civilization's discontents, the

ad men'll do it with a smile.

courtesy of Ann O'Tate