Weekly Wire
Tucson Weekly Media Mix

By Gregory McNamee

NOVEMBER 30, 1998:  AD HAWK: Let's say you have something to sell--a vegetable peeler, maybe, or a mind-blowing new spirulina-and-echinacia concoction, or even a widget. (And why not? In an increasingly abstract economy, there may be more demand for a made-up good than the real thing. Just ask the good people at Yahoo.com, who've made millions of dollars on the ether of cyberspace.)

Now, you can stand on an eastside median and hawk your wares, you can put up a web page and wait for visitors to stumble across it, or you can manufacture a few units of whatever it is you have to sell and hope that word of mouth will catch up to your ingenious and utterly necessary product so that you can make enough money to manufacture more.

Or you can turn to the dark side and hire an advertising agency.

That agency may concoct a virulent little pellet of racism or sexism with which to vend your goods: "Big Chief lonesome for his island home." "Banker by day. Bacardi by night." "Yo quiero Taco Bell."

It may turn in a sales concept so high that it defies categorization: think Ralph Lauren or Benetton. It may counsel you to go high-class: "Handcrafted for gentlemen since 1850." "When only the best will do." "It's not for everyone."

Or, if the agency is pitching to the under-25 set, as just about everyone is these days, it'll turn to the cheapest trick of all: cynicism.

As James Barron reports in the New York Times (Sunday, November 15), cynicism is all the rage on Madison Avenue. Tobacco ads now come with the obligatory boxed warning that smoking is harmful to your health, yet depict glamorous models off for an evening of nicotine-laced frolic. Alcohol ads point to corporate Internet pages devoted to responsible drinking while depicting dazzingly beautiful youngsters off for a night on the town. Footwear ads taunt purchasers with the dare that they're probably not cool enough to wear the company's products. ("Imelda Marcos bought 2,700 pairs of shoes," reads one. "She could have at least had the courtesy to buy a pair of ours.")

Ad agencies are scrambling to hire specialists in skepticism and self-deprecation who will concoct campaigns that, as media critic Todd Gitlin says, proclaim, "You and I both know that advertising is a crock, but we're taking you seriously as one who's not a dummy. We're not dummies either, we're all non-dummies together, and aren't we a swell bunch of folks to hang out with?"

Well, they're not such a swell bunch after all, those folks who bring you rainforest destruction and the greenhouse effect and the Gulf War and bad situation comedies. The good people at Adbusters, a Vancouver-based cooperative of self-styled "culture jammers," want you to understand this. And they're prepared to talk the hard-sell language of the enemy to make sure you do. "You don't need a million people to start a revolution," one Adbusters manifesto opines. "You just need a passionate minority who sees the light, smells the blood and pulls off a set of well-coordinated social marketing strategies....

"By being ready, waiting for the ripe moments and then jamming in unison, a global network of 500 jammers could pull the coup off. We can catalyze a sudden, unexpected global mindshift from which the consumerist forces will never fully recover."

Pretty big talk, that. But a tour of the Adbusters web pages (point your browser to http://www.adbusters.org/main/index.html) shows they're plenty serious. As you enter the site, for instance, you'll find an ambitious campaign urging people the world over to turn off their televisions, with appropriately perky slogans ("Why not rebel against brain-drain?") and inventive graphics depicting human eyes and heads that have been replaced by TV monitors.

Elsewhere on the site you'll find a series of documents on the destructive fallacies of late capitalism, using ad-campaign slogans that would make Karl Marx smile: "The global economy is a doomsday machine," one is captioned, while another borrows a happy war cry from the Situationist International, "Live without dead time!"

Elsewhere on the site you'll find howling parodies of current advertising. In one series, captioned "Obsession," a male model stares into his underwear, while a bulimic female hugs a toilet bowl. In another, using the conventions of laundry-detergent ads, Prozac is trumpeted as the way to "wash your blues away." And in another, a lone horse grazes in a snow-covered cemetery. The caption reads simply, "Marlboro Country."

Damn the faux cynics of Madison Avenue. Damn all the liars. This is the real thing, brought to you by media desperadoes whom we're sure we'd enjoy hanging out with. They're selling something, to be sure--but ideas in the place of noxious products, ideas with a long shelf-life and a growing demand. Be the first on your block to get them, collect them, trade them and sell them. You'll be glad you did.


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