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The Boston Phoenix Commercial Culture

The best television ads are smart, quirky, and even moving. They're a lot like art, if art's main job is to sell you ketchup.

By Stephen Heuser

OCTOBER 26, 1998:  Television advertising produces some sublime moments, and some ridiculous ones, and some moments that are uniquely and profoundly both.

For instance: 32 minutes and 20 seconds into a videotape compilation of the best international commercials of 1997, I begin to cry. What I'm watching is real home-video footage in slow motion: a boy falls into a pool, climbs out, laughs. A baby rolls from side to side in a crib. A little girl perches on the edge of a sofa, smiling to the camera. All the while a voice-over intones an elegy: "He was my North, my South, my East and West,/My working week and my Sunday rest. . . . " In other words, these children -- so joking, playful, alive on-screen -- are dead. The screen fades to black, and a stark line of type informs us that all of them have been run over by speeding cars. KILL YOUR SPEED, the message tells us, as a schoolmarmish hand gestures at us to slow down.

I have been crying, in other words, about traffic safety.

The tear reflex starts again during a tape of award-winning British ads. Again in slow motion, but not on home video this time, three children arrive home from school in little uniforms. They play at cooking; they ride bikes; they mischievously prepare a full dinner for their tired-out mum and dad. The scene unfolds wordlessly to a gorgeous South African call-and-response chant; the overall effect is like Paul Simon's Graceland scripted by Hallmark. I am helpless in its grip, until the little boy -- who has made warm and golden French fries for his exhausted parents -- pulls out a bottle labeled HEINZ.

Now I am getting teary about ketchup. I stop the tape before I begin to choke up over spray cologne, or Pepsi, or British beef.

What I'm watching are two video compilations of the best commercials in the world -- winners at the Cannes Advertising Film Festival and the British Advertising Broadcast Awards -- both of which are screening as full-length films at the Museum of Fine Arts at the end of the month. As a group, the spots are astonishingly adept: funny, quick, visually arresting, or, as in the case of these two, emotionally loaded. They are exactly the kind of commercials you would spend money to watch in a theater. Keith Stinson, the Canadian film distributor whose company circulates the compilation to theaters, calls it "a bunch of pint-size masterpieces thrown together."

When I ask Stinson why art-house moviegoers around North America seem so willing to pony up $7.50 to watch commercials, he makes an interesting point: "The quality you see in these ads," he says, "rivals your standard Hollywood film. Probably if you added up the budgets of all these ads -- let's say each ad costs a couple hundred thousand bucks -- you've got a major blockbuster film."

He may actually be underestimating a little. The industry magazine Shoot pegged the average 30-second spot in 1997 as costing $308,000, which puts the budget for a 75-minute-long all-commercial movie at about $46 million. And that's just average commercials. The most expensive TV commercial in 1997 cost $2.7 million to produce -- a per-minute cost that, if extrapolated to the length of Titanic, would clock in at somewhere over a billion dollars.

Advertising, in other words, is not only ubiquitous and incessant, it is also the single best-funded form of communication in the world. Sue Parenio, a former ad exec who teaches copywriting at BU, doesn't hesitate for a second to agree. A TV commercial, she says, has "everything you see in a movie, but done better. I mean, there's terrific acting. The best editing available today is done in commercials -- it's better than anything on MTV, better than anything on VH1. Everything that we admire in movies is going on in these. There's great suspense, terrific physical humor, beautiful sets, camera moves. I think that three times the artistry goes into them, so three times the beauty comes out of them."

Paul Rutherford, a University of Toronto history professor who has done a long-term study of television ads, calls the advertising industry, flatly, "one of the greatest concentrations of creative talent in the affluent world."

As a group, the world's best commercials are certainly striking for their artistry. They are interesting for another reason, too: they are what the creative side of the ad industry -- this historic concentration of creative talent -- thinks advertising ought to look like.

Taken as a whole, these collections paint a picture of an ad industry that is socially benign; that reaches people primarily though humor or -- as in the case of public-service spots like "kill your speed" -- by touching their hearts and inculcating a sense of social responsibility. Actually, if we need a signal that ad makers have a conscience, it's here: public-service announcements represent 13 of 86 of the commercials in the Cannes compilation, whereas if the film had hewn more closely to prime-time network standards, the 75-minute film would have allowed space for a single 30-second PSA.

Public-service spots aside, though, ads being good is not quite the same as ads doing good. Your standard television commercial, for all its dazzling armament of effect, is built to convey exactly one message. Underneath the surface -- even the very appealing surface of the World's Best Commercials -- that whole intimidating army of creative talent is mustered behind the sole goal of making the home viewer want stuff. It hardly seems a fair fight.

It's easy to overlook this when watching the Cannes commercials, because they probably demonstrate less up-front hucksterism than any other set of ads you could assemble. When the awards are given every year by a jury of ad-agency creative directors, they're not chosen primarily on the basis of what sells the product. Did anyone buy Heinz ketchup just because they felt so damn warm about the product after seeing the kids in that commercial? Hard to say. In fact, it is a truism in advertising that nobody quite knows what sells products; advertising of some kind is generally conceded to be necessary, but the most effective advertisements, dollar for dollar, may well be psychic-hotline infomercials, or local car-dealer rebate ads, or those aspirin ads with the embarrassingly improvised diagrams of "tension headaches."

Of course, when ad makers, especially the best ones, think about what they do, they do not envision automotive rebates or Dionne Warwick or a man in a lab coat talking about pain relief. They think of inspirational Nike music videos ("I Can") or of Rold Gold mini-documentaries ("Let Pretzel Boy Play!") or even, clearly, of my saccharine Heinz ad. They think of Tango, a British soft drink that was languishing in bottom-shelf obscurity until its agency, Howell Henry Chaldecott Lury, came up with a brilliantly twisted campaign employing, among other things, a dumpy man in a rubber fetish suit licking a televised image of the soft drink. "Run away!" he pleads, cringing, as his wife comes home to discover him in full-body black latex and a Tango-green codpiece. "Don't look at me! Run away!"

What does this have to do with apple-flavored soft drinks? Not much, which may be the magic of the campaign: Tango sales quickly jumped among young men aged 18 to 23, a jaded audience that tends to tune out direct pitches but that apparently is impressed by that kind of goofball innuendo. This kind of advertising is what's called, in the business, "image advertising." It dispenses with the distasteful hard sell ("buy this or you'll get fat") and the authoritative statement of fact. It makes an end run around viewer cynicism by not forwarding any explicit claims. If an ad can simply make you feel good about the company, you will feel good about the product. The very best examples of this kind of advertising are so subtle they don't appear to say anything about the company at all. They just want to catch the attention of a TV-inured viewer. This is the case in the Tango ads, and in Nike's series of ads depicting an obsessive Dennis Hopper smelling shoes in locker rooms. As a selling strategy, this represents a remarkable tactical contortion: making viewers happy with the company not by telling them the company is good, but by providing them with such great ads.

(To be sure, certain examples of "image advertising" are unlikely ever to make the Cannes awards. Oil companies, for instance, are forever trying to spruce up their corporate image with campaigns that amount to flagrant whitewash; in one commercial currently running on network television, Texaco forwards the astonishing proposition that it searches for oil out of selfless dedication to meeting the world's energy needs. That kind of shamelessness can make even ad people queasy; when pressed a little, Sue Parenio admits: "Noble advertising for products is pretty disgusting. I mean, 'we're saving the world' -- Exxon, no you're not.")

In general, image advertising has given commercial-watching considerably more appeal, turning the old-style pitch into a snappy music video or fringy little vignette. For ad people, too, this is what it's about. Freed from the obligation to flog incessantly or to show the product on camera at all times (a demand that Procter & Gamble is reputed to inflict on its hapless agencies), they can cut loose with experimental stuff that makes Hollywood look bland: edgy camera angles, modish colors, jump cuts. Critics find this kind of sinister -- media watcher Mark Crispin Miller told the Chicago Tribune he finds the new image advertising "increasingly sociopathic" -- but Cannes juries love it, and it makes watching ads lots of fun.

Of course, not every company is content with the business of amusing TV viewers: Nissan, for instance, pulled the reins on an ad campaign that landed two bronze medals in the 1997 Cannes festival after Nissan dealers complained the campaign wasn't helping them sell cars. The new set of Nissan ads is more direct, makes the dealers happier, and doesn't amuse the damn viewers so much.

It's hard not to feel, talking to people in the ad industry, that the creative side of the business is both its greatest weapon -- its only chance at getting past the defenses of smart, jaded viewers -- and its Achilles' heel. The most creative advertising campaigns are always at risk of producing an ad so entertaining nobody will connect it to the product. This doesn't do much good for the client, but one thinks of it as probably a net gain for viewers, who presumably watch television to be amused and not to be separated from their money.

For the ad buyer, the best ads are the ones that amuse the audience on the surface while creating a quiet, even subconscious pang of desire deep inside. In one Brazilian commercial that won a bronze medal at Cannes, a lush tableau of a young blonde woman lovingly breast-feeding her infant -- and, this being Brazilian TV, we get quite a loving picture of the breast itself -- is interrupted by the baby crying. Still smiling, but a bit confused, the mother switches him from her left arm to her right. The baby latches on to the other breast and begins feeding happily. Then the voice-over: "The first important thing a human being learns is that he or she has a choice. Pepsi: the choice of a new generation."

It's a gag, but the tone is deadpan, and my first reaction to this ad was alarm: this woman's breasts dispense Pepsi? That's not the point, of course. The point it makes about cola is that we don't have to accept Coke. The point it makes about advertising is much more interesting: in the ceaseless campaign for our attention, anything is fair game. The bond between mother and child becomes a tool for reinforcing the very lucrative distinction between two brands of cola whose tastes are, in fact, about as distinguishable as a left breast and a right.

Sooner or later everything becomes digested by the advertising industry; the most pungent and meaningful images, after all, are the images closest to our hearts. Says Paul Rutherford: "There is nothing sacred. There are Brazilian commercials where they use the pope." The smarter we get about advertising, the smarter advertising becomes, and the more it becomes a montage of images, sounds, and slogans custom-designed to strike us where we live. In this quest for that one straight shot to the heart, the jingle has largely been abandoned in favor of affecting pop songs we already know: the Verve's "Bittersweet Symphony" held Nike's "I Can" campaign together; Chevy trucks conquer the rugged American landscape "Like a Rock." Sue Parenio says that "when you look at cutting-edge spots, you see precisely where civilization is at that moment," and it's true: advertising represents not only the cutting edge of video design and production, but also the purest distillation of the things we value, the things that amuse us, the things that worry us. It is amazing, somehow, that real life ever lures us back.

Advertising is not alone in its button-pushing appropriation of common culture. The best shows on television -- ER, Ally McBeal, The Simpsons -- are smartly scripted, artfully edited repackagings of the things that middle-class America thinks and worries and laughs about. Seinfeld, in particular, had its finger so carefully on the Zeitgeist that it seemed to invent it as it went along. And if you could articulate an ad maker's dream, "inventing the Zeitgeist" would probably be it -- especially if the Zeitgeist features your product prominently. (Not surprisingly, Jerry Seinfeld has reportedly considered opening a boutique ad agency of his own.)

But when ad makers do what Seinfeld does, they do it with a twist. Jerry Seinfeld's comedy may be genius or it may be fluff, but it ultimately makes us laugh at ourselves and gives us a lighthearted perspective on the world and its discontents and our foibles -- and that's all. In advertising that is not, by and large, all. Most advertising has another agenda that we don't think about so much: it makes us unhappy.

"I think that what advertising does," says Rutherford, "and [television] is the most powerful form of advertising, is that it establishes a way of looking at things: that the world is made up of problems and solutions. The world is made up of dissatisfactions -- not extreme, but mild dissatisfactions -- which can be matched with products."

The great enemy of consumer capitalism, in other words, is not communism but contentment. Companies don't spend huge amounts of money on research and development out of concern for the public good; they spend to create products that we will want more than the ones we already have.

A good ad, even one we might write off as cheesy, has all the narrative ruthlessness and cultural traction of a fable, or all the humor and brevity of an aphorism, only it is much more fun to watch. But unlike fables and aphorisms, which exist to teach us a variety of life lessons, the moral of a television commercial is unvarying: you need this. The lion never has a thorn removed by kindness; the thorn is removed by a particular brand of tweezers. The prince finds Cinderella by bringing her shoe -- and calling the right taxi service to get there. A stitch in time saves nine, but only with the right thread. Advertising is a gorgeous, rich, compellingly scripted work of literature that consists of one moral, over and over: consume.

As the targets of that propaganda, the most powerful weapon we have is an awareness of how ads work. Pepsi isn't just a choice, it's the image of a beautiful blonde in a loose bathrobe. Image advertising creates a gorgeous world of Nikeness or Heinzness that we can buy a piece of for $85 or $4.99. These worlds are pure fiction, created by a copywriter and an art director and a cinematographer and a 50-person production crew and a high-tech postproduction house. The important lie they are propagating is not that the world is happier and more amusing than it really is -- after all, for centuries people have been escaping into literature that tells them precisely that -- but that we can buy our way from one condition to the other.

We can't, of course. Once you realize that, top-grade advertising starts to become enjoyable and low-grade advertising -- the kind that manipulates us with fear and insecurity and envy -- really starts to stink. In fact, top-level international advertising may be the great corrective to the manipulations of crappy ads; after watching the Cannes Lions winners, with their sympathetic celebrations of fat Finnish farmers and goofy Japanese salarymen, it is suddenly appalling to watch Jenny Craig taunt the sad, overweight middle class into pointless diet programs with impossible images of professional swimsuit-wearers.

Watching the Cannes winners is also a corrective to certain prejudices of American advertising. When critics like the Village Voice's Leslie Savan tee off on the politics of ads, what disturbs them is the way American advertising -- pitched primarily to the white middle class -- relies on such a skewed, sanitized version of the world. It tends to portray a youthful population because after a certain age people stop trying to buy their identities at the mall. (American ads targeted at older people tend to use scare tactics instead of envy: "It's not how high you've come," reads one high-budget John Hancock commercial aimed at well-off late-career types. "It's how far your family could fall." The cult favorite "I've fallen and I can't get up" would have been equally distasteful if it hadn't been so ham-handed.) In Britain, it turns out, the subjects of ads are a bit more imperfect and blue-collar than their American counterparts; in Brazil, a bit more nude.

Divorced from context, the Cannes winners are terrific entertainment, even beautiful. But you would have to be demented to argue that commercials -- except for a handful of public-service announcements -- deliver what we expect from art. It's hard to be profound when your heart belongs to a pretzel company. And the form has its limits: a commercial generally has to tell its story in 30 seconds, which is something like the time it takes to walk to the bathroom from your desk. To tell a story in 30 seconds, you don't create thought-provoking characters. You use iconography, shortcuts. A lithe black woman signifies athleticism; youth signifies desirability; Keith Lockhart conducting in a white dinner jacket instantly conveys class and taste.

The result is an aesthetic product that is stylistically exhilarating but totally static in any nonmaterial sense. The effect of watching 75 consecutive minutes of commercials is . . . well, not quite a blur, but a buzz of constant stimulation, a ride of ups and downs that rockets forward without more than a minute of cohesion at a time -- not unlike a Jerry Bruckheimer film, with fewer explosions and more quirky German people.

Perhaps the most elegant and perfect single spot in the three-odd hours of commercial viewing was a four-minute spot from, of all people, the commercial-free BBC. The Beeb's ad is essentially a music video: 240 seconds of the most famous pop singers in the world -- each lovingly filmed alone against a backdrop of saturated color -- taking turns singing the Lou Reed song "Perfect Day."

"Just a perfect day," sings Lou Reed. "Drink sangria in the park." Between lines, a disembodied hand shifts transparencies in an antique slide projector. "Then later, when it gets dark, we'll go home," sings Bono. The sun rises on a lush topiary garden. "Just a perfect day," sings David Bowie. Before the spot is over, we have heard from Elton John, Tammy Wynette, Tom Jones, Burning Spear, Emmylou Harris, the BBC Orchestra, and a host of others.

The song, with its lilting simplicity, is ideal for the ostensible purpose of the spot: to show viewers how the BBC's commitment to music makes anyone's "perfect day" possible. In that sense, its haunting refrain, "You're going to reap . . . just what you sow," is an appropriate thank-you to the BBC's viewers, who support the network, however involuntarily, by paying a licensing fee for the privilege of watching commercial-free television.

But "Perfect Day" has also been convincingly interpreted as a love song to heroin, and it's hard to miss the aptness. This is a commercial for television itself, in the same sense that a reel of award-winning ads is a commercial for commercials: a beautiful exercise in a devious craft, addictive, singing our minds to sleep. "Perfect Day" is just good enough that you don't want to undo the magic, and that's okay: there is nothing behind the commercial, no meaningful agenda to worry about. If anything, it is an encomium to diversity and celebrity and the hidden power of the BBC. But not every ad is so benign. In front of a reel of Cannes winners, we can afford to relax, to appreciate their gentle wit and smart direction, their quirky humor and skillful weaving of cultural references. But at home, off guard, the moment we yield to advertising's ceaseless siren song to make us stop thinking is the most un-American moment of all, when we quietly cede our hopes and desires and self-determination to the million-dollar persuaders in the box.

Stephen Heuser can be reached at sheuser@phx.com.

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