The Magazine

Advertisements for Themselves

Commercials in a Postmodern Age

Nov 15, 1999, Vol. 5, No. 09 • By BRIAN MURRAY
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In 1960, the Volkswagen was still widely considered a comical car for bohemians and cranks. But within a decade, thanks largely to advertising, Beetles were everywhere, a familiar feature of American life. Even David Ogilvy was impressed. According to Kanner, Ogilvy called "Funeral" the "funniest commercial he'd ever seen," and credited it with "changing his mind that people don't buy from clowns."

And yet, by the early 1970s, many in American advertising were eager to eliminate the clowns, contending that wit and whimsy no longer suited the country's tired and contentious mood. Moreover, some studies suggested that humorous irony left too many viewers distracted and confused. Alka-Seltzer's famous "Spicy Meatballs" spot, first aired in 1969, depicted an actor downing endless forkfuls of spaghetti during the filming of a commercial for "Magadini's Meatballs." Dozens of takes are botched, and the hapless actor, gorged and nauseated, can barely utter his big line: "Mama Mia, that's a spicy meatball!" As Kanner notes, "the most famous commercial about making a commercial didn't work. People thought it was for spaghetti sauce and Alka-Seltzer sales slumped."

During the 1970s, production values for commercials continued to improve, and as a result many more took on the tight, polished look of little feature films. And, more frequently, commercials offered nostalgic images or patriotic themes. In the wake of the raucous 1960s, Coca-Cola proposed "to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony." In 1974, in the midst of Watergate, General Motors commissioned a spot for Chevrolet that mixed images of family fun with an upbeat country tune celebrating the timeless pleasures of "Baseball, Hot Dogs, Apple Pie." The song, Kanner recalls, became "an anthem," played by "by organists at ballparks while airplanes flew overhead with banners." The commercial itself -- regarded by some industry leaders as the best ever made -- aimed to put Chevy "back into a position of trust after a year in which people believed nothing."

As the economy dragged, the ad business tightened its belt, putting renewed emphasis on marketing and research. By the middle of the decade, "creativity" was no longer the buzzword, and -- as advertising historian Stephen Fox has observed -- the industry returned generally to "hard sell" techniques that had prevailed twenty years before. By the late 1970s, Fox writes, ads "came to resemble each other." In America at least, it was a time for "naked women in bath-oil spots; macho sportsmen in beer ads; pet food commercials with a pet and a bowl of the product."

Fox's The Mirror Makers: A History of American Advertising and Its Creators appeared in 1984, just as a second "creative revolution" started to boom. This one owed directly to the spread of cable and the VCR -- to the new ubiquity of remote control. In effect, during the 1980s, Ogilvy's nightmare came true. Advertisers and their clients now knew that, unless riveted, most viewers would disappear after a second or two, zapping their way to more gripping pictures.

At the same time computerization made special effects increasingly cheap and easy. Internationally, today's top commercials are more than ever like mini-movies, offering elaborate visuals and, increasingly, big stars: Burt Reynolds, Anthony Quinn, Michael J. Fox, Catherine Deneuve. And they're frequently directed by the sort of high-profile directors who, twenty years ago, would have very probably dismissed advertising as a low and vulgar trade. This trend has long been clearest in Britain, where Hugh Hudson and Ridley Scott are among many well-regarded directors who have worked in advertising throughout their careers.

Hudson, best known for the Oscar-winning Chariots of Fire, also directed several commercials to win a place on Kanner's list, including "Swimming Pool," a widely celebrated spot for Benson & Hedges that first appeared in British movie theaters in 1978. "Swimming Pool" featured no commentary, only "rhythmic rock music" and an arresting series of images that, as Kanner notes, included a desert, lizards, a glimmering swimming pool, and a helicopter transporting oversized cigarettes in what initially appears to be a "large tin of sardines." As a narrative, "Swimming Pool" made no sense. Nor did it illuminate the product's virtues. Instead, it offered "fantastic imagery to forestall wear-out," luring viewers to watch "repeatedly without getting bored."

Ridley Scott gained acclaim as a film director with the 1979 Alien and 1982 Blade Runner. But he also directed what is arguably the single most influential American commercial ever made: Apple computer's "Big Brother," which first aired during the Super Bowl in January 1984. "Big Brother" featured a grimly futuristic setting in which an ominous Big Brother figure, projected from a huge TV screen, addresses a large group of dronelike people with shaved heads and gray uniforms. Suddenly, a young woman in red jogging shorts breaks through the crowd and, hurling a sledgehammer, shatters the screen projecting Big Brother's grim face. "On January 24," a voice proclaims, "Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you'll see why 1984 won't be like 1984."

Like "Swimming Pool" -- and countless commercials since -- "Big Brother" was less concerned about the product than the presumed values of its buyers. Apple owners, the ad implied, were fit, energetic, rebellious -- and bright enough to savor this updated allusion to George Orwell's famous novel. With this new machine, Apple buyers would decisively declare their independence and creativity. "Big Brother," they recognized, symbolized "Big Blue" -- Apple's dominant rival, IBM.

Kanner discusses more recent campaigns for Diesel Jeans, including one 1997 spot in which "a handsome guy in impeccable Diesel Jeans kisses his wife and baby good-bye before dueling with a grubby, despicable man who kicks dogs -- and shoots our hero dead." Such oblique and "edgy" spots, Kanner writes, have created "a counterculture personality" for Diesel's "$ 80 dungarees," making them "the second-best-selling jeans behind Levi's in many European countries."

In other words, Diesel's ads try not to look like ads at all. Their elliptical structure aims partly to exclude undesirable viewers -- namely, unhip schmucks who can't or won't put down eighty bucks for a pair of jeans. Diesel's ad director told Kanner that his company's commercials "are about making our mark and establishing our image as a company." Consumers, he suggests, "don't actually buy jeans; they buy the image, what surrounds the jeans." Adds Kanner: "People who think an ad is cool think the company is cool -- and that buying their product makes them cool."

Advertising today is more varied -- and ubiquitous -- than ever before. Still, most prime time advertisements link products to popular "images" or fashionable attitudes: Sports shoes, snack foods, cars -- even Cadillacs -- are pitched primarily on the assumption that they too are, somehow, cool. As a result, a growing number of commercials -- like Diesel's -- are determinedly "artistic," often with pretentious results. A recent television spot for Agilent Technologies, for example, mimics Wim Wender's beautiful 1987 film Wings of Desire, and manages to suggest that eternal questions of time and mortality are pretty much the same as the universal need for speedy e-mail. One cringes as Kanner exclaims: "If Michelangelo were alive today, he'd probably be working on Madison Avenue."

So, too, in its use of dark sarcasm, Diesel is hardly alone. Whether selling fast food, pistachio nuts, or credit cards, many recent commercials present the world as a grotesque place inhabited primarily by bizarre characters in absurd situations. Presumably such caricatures are designed to make viewers feel better about themselves and somehow superior to others. In this regard, contemporary advertising owes far less to Stan Freberg than to a sensibility -- and a sense of humor -- shaped variously by Monty Python and Saturday Night Live, David Letterman and Howard Stern. Kanner, like Stephen Fox, is largely right when she suggests that "advertising holds a mirror up to show us who and what we are." And, aptly, she dubs the Diesel spots "Nihilist Chic."

In this climate, it's no wonder that so many of Ogilvy's colleagues paid him tribute in recent years; in 1991, for example, the Association of National Advertisers hailed him as "perhaps the last great figure in the advertising world." For them, Ogilvy, stylish and urbane, represented standards that prevailed when the world -- and their profession -- seemed generally less chaotic and mean. Back in 1949, Julian Watkins argued that "great advertising" was not only "clear" (offering "an idea" that "can't be buried regardless of presentation") but "sincere" (its "belief" reaching "right out from the page and into your heart"). Ogilvy stressed the same points repeatedly in interviews and his own published writings.

"A good advertisement," Ogilvy once wrote, "is one which sells the product without drawing attention to itself." "The consumer is not a moron," he declared, many years ago; "she is your wife. Don't insult her intelligence." After fifty years of television, it still seems like sound advice.


The 100 Best

TV Commercials

And Why They Worked

by Bernice Kanner

Times, 252 pp., $ 29.95


Tip of the Freberg

The Stan Freberg Collection, 1951-1998

by Stan Freberg

Wea/Atlantic/Rhino, 4 CDs and 1 video, $ 59.97

Brian Murray teaches in the Department of Writing & Media at Loyola College in Baltimore.