Part 1 (1975-1988) is here.
In the fall of 1988 I parlayed my Adweek columns into an audition to be an on-air commentator at WBUR, the local NPR station that was well on its way to becoming a major player in the Boston mediaverse.
I recorded a spec tape in which the Missus played the role of a WBUR anchor introducing my ad commentary. (No idea what the topic was.)
The ‘BUR execs loved the Missus and thought I was okay, so I became the station’s advertising commentator, thereby taking possession of what was surely at that time the world’s smallest franchise.
Regardless, I shortly thereafter filed these two pieces about the campaign ads run by Democratic presidential nominee Mike Dukakis.
I’ll be the first to admit that those commentaries were slightly less polished than the Dukakis ads. But I’ll also say this: My pieces got better. His ads got worse.
After the Duke was blowtorched by Poppy Bush, I turned to other advertising matters, like a serial sadvertising campaign about an estranged father and daughter that New England Telephone ran in early ’89.
Then there was Polaroid’s $20 million campaign for its instant film business, which portrayed us as a nation of total amnesiacs and launched an early version of the current selfie shtick era.
Ad announcer: “Before the moment is lost forever, we take it and share it with you like nobody else. Before it’s a memory, it’s Polaroid.”
Me: “All the world’s a film stage these days. We’re turning into a nation of shutterbug Boswells, indiscriminately recording on film every moment of our days. Even Socrates wouldn’t approve of examining our lives this much” . . .
These days, Socrates would go straight for the hemlock.
When Massachusetts Rep. Ed Markey proposed reducing ads during children’s programming on TV, I arose one Saturday at the crack of 11 to investigate.
Grafs I could never get away with nowadays:
Of the approximately 25 commercials I saw in an hour, over half of them were some breakfast-related item. If this is all a kid should eat, I don’t think Cap’n Crunch and Eggo waffles should dominate the menu, no matter how much they claim to be ‘part of a balanced breakfast.’
Hey – I have a balanced breakfast every morning: Three cups of coffee and three cigarettes. That doesn’t mean I’d recommend it for kids.
Then there were the Christian Leaders for Responsible Television, which called for a one-year boycott of the Mennen and Clorox brands because of their sponsorship of NBC-TV’s shows ”Miami Vice” and ”Dream Street,” which the group said contained excessive sex, violence, and profanity.
I thought their outrage was, well, off-target.
The group later launched a two-year boycott of Johnson Wax over its ads on “Northern Exposure” and “Columbo Cries Wolf.”
Just one more thing: Seriously? Waxing indignant over Columbo? Hard to know in retrospect who exactly was crying wolf.
• • • • • • •
Beyond my ‘BUR work, 1989 turned out to be an eventful year in my work work as well.
It began with a bunch of people in the Boston ad community – and not just the fine folks in the direct mail dodge – objecting to my Adweek columns.
Agency execs started claiming that I was mocking their ad campaigns to make clients unhappy with them and thus ripe for the plucking by KK&M, the small retail agency where I was creative director.
Which was kind of ridiculous, since KK&M was a much worse agency than all of theirs.
Regardless, it became a thing, and since I liked column writing a lot more than copywriting, I gave KK&M the swift and started my own business, figuring a one-man shop would pose no threat to all those fraidy-cat agencies around town.
(As it turned out, a similar accusation would surface five years later during The Extremely Unfortunate Bobby Orr Rumpus, which we will discuss in due course.)
Meanwhile, say hello to my new employer.
Early on I decided that there was no way I would pursue the usual independent consultant route – marking up production costs by 20%, collecting 15% commissions on media buys, essentially fronting clients’ expenses with the expectation of added revenues. I’d seen too many others in the business stiffed into bankruptcy by taking that path.
So I became a hired pen: I wrote copy for money and left the money laundering to others.
In the first couple of Carroll Creative years, I did a lot of writing and made a lot of dough. But most of the work was eminently forgettable, so I forgot to save it.
Oddly enough, the only thing I did save was a demo radio spot for a campaign announcing the takeover of Pickett Suite Hotels by the Guest Quarters chain.
The demo features me doing a pretty lame Humphrey Bogart imitation as private detective Sam Marlowe.
I was sitting in my inner office counting my thumbs and growling back at my stomach. I’m Sam Marlowe, private detective. It says so on my window – [sound of shattered glass] -until that rock came through it. There was a note attached – it said ‘After February 15th, no one will check out of the Pickett Suite hotels’ . . .
The kicker: Sam’s secretary says “They don’t need a shamus, Sam. Just a sign maker.”
Surprisingly, the client approved it. I got someone who could do a real Bogart impersonation to record the spot, sent it out to the 11 markets with Pickett Suite hotels, and Bob’s your uncle.
Except . . .
Among those markets was Indianapolis, where one of Humphrey Bogart’s descendants happened to a) live and b) hear the ad. A cease-and-desist letter arrived shortly thereafter, but the campaign was over by then. So that was that, angel.
• • • • • • •
Nineteen-ninety was a gubernatorial election year in Massachusetts, so I produced a lot of ‘BUR commentaries about political ads that fall. And since Boston University president John Silber was the Democratic nominee for governor, my commentaries had their own political aspect, given that BU owned WBUR at that time (and still does).
To earn the nomination, though, Silber had to get past former Massachusetts Attorney General Frank Bellotti, who in the closing days of the Democratic primary latched onto this intemperate remark Silber made about rationing medical care for the elderly: ”I want to remind the voters of Massachusetts that Shakespeare was right when he said ‘Ripeness is all.’ When you’ve had a long life and you’re ripe, then it’s time to go.”
Hey, what voter doesn’t love a King Lear quote.
And so Bellotti pounced, as I noted at the time.
When John Silber turned greengrocer and started freshness-dating the elderly, you had to figure that Frank Bellotti would jump at the chance to exploit it. For one thing, up until this week Bellotti’s had precious little ammunition to use against Silber since the Democratic state convention. For another, Frank’s getting to be a little ripe himself. It’s quite possible that he felt his personal ante in the governor’s race had just been upped.
Either way, in a little over a week Bellotti had taken to the airwaves with a commercial that Silber called “as vicious a use of television as I’ve ever seen.” Clearly, the Doctor hasn’t been putting in much tube time lately; compared to the commercials Jim Rappaport has been using to sandbag John Kerry, Bellotti’s spot looks like choir practice . . .
Regardless, Silber won the nomination by ten points, so it was time for Frank to go.
Enter Republican nominee Bill Weld, who was rejected at the GOP convention but came from behind to beat state rep Steven Pierce by 20 points.
In terms of campaign advertising, I rejected both Weld and Silber.
To their great credit, the editors at ‘BUR never flinched, even when I was putting Silber through the wringer, as in this piece that ran three weeks before the election.
As if the political process wasn’t already a three-ring media circus, John Silber raises advertising manipulation to the next plateau with his new television commercial attacking Bill Weld. A self-proclaimed innovator, Silber is the first candidate in Massachusetts to use the newspaper reviews of an opposing candidate’s ads as ammunition against that opponent. So what started out as a service to the voting public has been turned into just one more political bludgeon.
For most of Silber’s commercial, we see still frames from Bill Weld’s television ads. The shots chosen to depict Weld are, of course, the most unflattering available – one with his lip torturously curled, another with him looking like his jaw is dislocated. This is a technique that will undoubtedly grow in popularity, with the images getting coarser and fuzzier until the opponent looks like a six-foot anchovy pizza . . .
Of course, as an equal-opportunity critic, I roughed up Bill Weld a fair amount too. This commentary ran three days after the Silber piece.
William Weld has taken to ending his new television commercials with the slogan, “Guts. Integrity. Independence.” But his most recent ads display very little of those three qualities that he would like the voters of Massachusetts to ascribe to him. Does it take guts, for instance, to prey on the fear and uncertainty of elderly citizens who rely on the state government for medical assistance? . . .
Is it a sign of integrity to create phony news headlines to attack your opponent? . . .
And is it a sign of independence to jump on the Dukakis-bashing bandwagon regardless of the position of your opponent? John Silber just won a primary election that was widely regarded as revolutionary in its repudiation of the previous state administration. Saddling him with Mike Dukakis is the most ludicrous pairing since Kim Basinger and Prince . . .
I also had a few observations about the GOP’s fundraising techniques at the time.
Republicans have always struck me as a group that has very deep pockets and extremely short arms. And it seems that their party officials have come to agree with that assessment, because several Republican fundraising groups are currently resorting to tactics that make the average chain letter look like a postcard from the Cape.
One group – the Republican Presidential Task Force – has been sending out a fundraising package that includes a 25-dollar check, which at first blush would indicate that Dan Quayle was behind the drive and just got it backwards. But it turns out that once deposited, the check actually authorizes the task force to charge your bank account twelve dollars and fifty cents each month. They call it Candidate Escrow Funding, but it looks more like a direct-withdrawal program for busy Republicans with low IQs . . .
At the end of the 1990 election cycle, I sort of unloaded on the dreadful parade of dismal campaign ads.
For what has seemed like an endless period of time, television has hit viewers with a barrage of commercials generally characterized by poor taste, questionable judgement, and concepts that are creatively bankrupt. And that’s just New England Telephone’s earthquake campaign.
The political ads have been even worse. These monuments to innuendo, half-truth, and shaky cause-and-effect have been so prevalent over the past year that they almost seem like just another form of regular advertising. But imagine for a minute what it would be like if, say, the cola wars between two soft drinks we’ll call Joke-a-Cola and Pesky, employed the techniques of political commercials . . .
And with that, I kissed the 1990 political campaign goodbye. I had no idea how bad it would get in the coming years.
• • • • • • •
In all, I produced around 50 commentaries that year for WBUR’s Morning Edition. Thankfully, I wrote about a lot more than politics. During that year I pounded out commentaries on everything from Perrier’s worldwide product recall in response to contamination issues . . .
I’m sure that when all the Perrier in the world got recalled last month, you had the same thought that I did: What in hell are we going to do with all those limes? They’ll be stacked up in warehouses and rotting away and who knows – we might even have to start dealing with a citric-acid rain problem. It was almost enough to drive you to drink. I mean really drink . . .
to a Reebok ad campaign that made a joke about bungee jumping.
Reebok’s corporate mandate has always been: Be different, be outrageous, and if it happens to work, so much the better. A good example of this approach is Reebok’s new headquarters, a place that looks like the result of a design competition that everybody won. But the Reebok philosophy reaches its zenith in the company’s advertising, which pretty much alternates between the bizarre and the ridiculous.
The U.B.U. campaign of two years ago was quintessential Reebok – an intentionally weird series of ads that were supposed to celebrate individuality, but succeeded only in alienating virtually everyone who saw them. The U.B.U. campaign was an overnight disaster, and, quite justly, It Be Gone.
But even if the campaign didn’t sell sneakers, it did get plenty of attention. The same holds true for the controversial bungee-jumping commercial that was forced off the air last week. The spot showed two men jumping off a bridge, one wearing Reebok’s new Pump basketball shoe, the other wearing Nikes. They free-fall for awhile, and then the Reebok wearer bounces back. The final frame shows the other bungee cords with an empty pair of Nikes dangling from them. Parents, for some reason, didn’t get the joke . . .
Over the course of the next seven years, I produced hundreds of commentaries for WBUR. Here’s a Whitman’s Sampler of my early work.
Father’s Day Ads (1990)
Please – just don’t give Dad a knee-length apron that says, “Cooking Fish Gives Me a Haddock.”
Classroom Ads (1990)
As Yogi Berra said, you can observe a lot just by watching. And the more I watch children, the more it seems we’re raising a generation of advertising-driven shakedown artists who could wheedle a neutron bomb out of their doting and beleaguered parents . . .
Volvo’s Deceptive Commercial (1991)
Volvo has long been the automotive favorite of the crunchy-granola set because it’s just so darn intelligent to own one. Thirtysomething parents know that a Volvo will give the highest level of protection to their politically correct nuclear families. From a safety standpoint, Volvos are sort of Turtle Wax for the conscience.
Just how safe is a Volvo? According to one of the automaker’s new commercials, as safe as the womb. The ad features a sonogram of a 12-week-old fetus that, thanks to a crooked arm, looks like it’s waving at us. After about 20 seconds of the sonogram, an announcer comes on and says, “Is something inside telling you to buy a Volvo?”
Hey, if that kid could talk, they’d be buying a Mazda Miata.
The commercial is strikingly different, and more than a little risky politically, but it’s Volvo’s other new commercial that brought the law down on them in Texas.
Filmed in Austin with 400 local residents as crowd extras, the ad is a re-enactment of a monster truck rally, wherein a vehicle with wheels the size of the Donut That Ate Cleveland rolls over a line of cars, crushing all of them but the Volvo.
This commercial is based on an actual event, but the Texas Attorney General, tipped off by some of the extras, was unhappy that the spot wasn’t labeled a dramatization. He was also less than thrilled to learn that the Volvo’s passenger compartment had been reinforced with lumber and steel, and that two other cars had their roof structures weakened. The state put a lawsuit on Volvo like a slap bracelet . . .
Clarence Thomas Hearings (1991)
Whatever you may think of the Conservative Victory Committee’s marketing skills, you have to admit that the CVC has its doublespeak down to a science. The rightwing political-action group has spent the last week claiming that it didn’t start anything, but was just letting the left know that the group will respond if Clarence Thomas is attacked the way Robert Bork was. In other words, they’re trying to define a sucker punch as a counter punch. George Foreman and George Orwell must be awfully proud . . .
Chanel’s Egoiste Perfume Ad (1991)
Outside of scent strips – which have replaced the 17-year locust as a pestilence on society – perfume ads have no concrete method of conveying their product’s characteristics, which forces them into overproduced flights of fancy to promote themselves. The relentless narcissism of perfume ads can eventually make you wonder if the creators have been drinking the product instead of dabbing it behind their ears.
One perfume company that really pushes the self-addressed envelope is Chanel, which in various commercials over the years has given us poolside fantasies for Chanel No. 5, and Catherine Deneuve’s outspoken passion for blueberries. But Chanel’s new commercial for Egoiste tops them all with its introduction of a character who seems to combine the principles of Warren Beatty with the charm of John Sununu . . .
Cosmopolitan Magazine (1991)
As far as I can tell, Helen Gurley Brown’s two major accomplishments in life have been 1) serving as editor of Cosmopolitan magazine for the past 26 years, and 2) unfailingly living up to her middle name. Exhibit A is Ms. Brown’s editor’s column in Cosmo, which includes a picture of her hugging an embroidered pillow that says “Good Girls Go to Heaven. Bad Girls Go Everywhere.” An appropriate sentiment for a magazine apparently founded on the journalistic premise that cleavage is your most important accessory . . .
Red Sox Commercial Sponsorships (1991)
Ever since Roger Clemens signed his new contract this winter, which pays him something like a thousand dollars for every breath, I’ve pretty much left the baseball-salary watch to NASA. And a good thing, too – rumor has it that the Red Sox annual payroll was recently sighted by the Hubble, which means the giant telescope is now batting one-for-the-entire-galaxy.
About the only thing that can approach baseball’s astronomical player salaries are the broadcast-rights fees paid to the clubs by radio and TV stations. Of course, in order to recover their investments, the broadcast outlets either had to hope for a lot of extra-inning games or find new sources of commercial revenue. So the stations have decided to peddle promotional sponsorships within the game, hanging a For Sale sign on virtually every aspect of baseball, with the possible exception of spitting . . .
Chris Whittle High (1991)
Here’s a classic Chris Whittle story: Two years ago, he recommended that General Motors take its 1.2 billion dollar advertising budget and spend the first hundred million tracking down people who were likely to buy an import car in the coming year. Then the automaker could use the other 900 million to take each prospect to lunch at a fancy restaurant three times to chew over the benefits of owning a GM car. Needless to say, GM didn’t bite.
Regardless, that was vintage Chris Whittle, who’s a cross between the Rube Goldberg and the Mad King Ludwig of media. Whittle saw an educational system desperate for teaching tools, so he sold Channel One to 8700 schools that couldn’t resist the free satellite dishes, televisions, and VCRs that each received for showing 10 minutes of news and two minutes of commercials a day to high-schoolers. While many adults were outraged about this captive audience for advertisers, most students shrugged off the commercials as coals to Newcastle. Or grease to White Castle, in the updated version . . .
Honda ‘Made in America’ Campaign (1992)
When George Bush went to Tokyo earlier this year to panhandle for trade change, he brought along with him the largest group of corporate “Don’ts” that Japan is likely ever to see. Chief among the bloated entourage was Lee Iacocca, a windbag of such major proportions, he should be installed on the driver’s side of every automobile Chrysler makes. His presence on the trip contributed greatly to the flurry of bilingual bad-mouthing that occupied both sides for the next several months.
Clearly a little fender-mending was in order, and as usual, the Japanese have taken the lead. They volunteered to reduce their exports slightly and to purchase more U.S. auto parts, which for all we know may be utilized as planters and fashion accessories. Beyond that, several Japanese car companies have begun touting their American factories and workforces in both regional and national advertising . . .
Beyond Beef (1992)
All the ex-Cold Warriors out there hankering for a new enemy to battle may finally be able to rest easy. Apparently, America’s vast herds of cattle constitute the latest incarnation of the Evil Empire. At least that’s what the Beyond Beef Coalition would have you believe. Personally, I always thought Beyond Beef was, well, dessert. I find out now I was sadly mistaken.
Those juicy burgers, sizzling steaks, and Sunday pot roasts that America loves so well are in reality destroying the planet, according to the coalition. The leader of the activist herd is eco-fanatic and author Jeremy Rifkin, who is alternately described as a modern-day Upton Sinclair and the Stephen King of food horror stories . . .
• • • • • • •
Happily, the world’s smallest franchise turned into a media-world can opener. It got me noticed outside the local ad community and led to new freelance opportunities like this 1990 Halloween Eve column for the Christian Science Monitor.
The following year I finally cracked the Boston Globe with a Focus section piece about the collateral damage done by the media coverage of the Persian Gulf War.
The Persian Gulf War may be over, but the sorties have just begun. The PR sorties, that is. The public relations industry will soon be knee-deep in clients who want cosmetic surgery for their corporate images. The credibility of many media players in this war disappeared more quickly than the Iraqi resistance.
The three major television networks were alternately America’s cheerleaders and invisible, which works for the Laker Girls but few others. The press could use a press agent as well . . .
A couple of months later I wrote a Focus piece (“On bewaring of the green”) about the burgeoning eco-friendly-product dodge.
Green Marketing – touting the ecological benefits of a product – is all the rage nowadays. It could also prove to be the Adscam of the ’90s. For many companies, environmental consciousness has become just another marketing gimmick, like the redundant Cash-Back Rebate or the grammatically dysfunctional E-Z Opening Spout.
In the fall I was back in the Focus section with a piece about advertising clutter.
The sad truth is you can’t spit without hitting an advertisement any more. On an average day, American adults see more ads than they see people, which is extremely depressing if you live anywhere but Los Angeles. Estimates of our daily intake of marketing messages now range from 1.700 to 3,000.
Enter the law of diminishing returns. In the course of spending $120 billion annually to romance consumers, advertising has become both less popular and less effective. One industry study indicates that the percentage of viewers who remember any ads on television has fallen from 70 percent in 1987 to 48 percent currently. That’s a lot of obscurity for the buck.
The same day this piece ran in the Globe’s Sunday Magazine.
Favorite graf: “In matters of recycling, the world is divided into the Whiz Kids and the Wimps. This being Massachusetts, an abundance of Whiz Kids is to be expected, given the state’s history of recycling innovation. After all, Massachusetts found two uses for Michael Dukakis (1974-82, 1986-90), whereas the rest of the country couldn’t even find one. That’s impressive.”
• • • • • • •
In January of ’92 I hit the Boston Globe Freelance Trifecta with this op-ed piece chronicling New Hampshire presidential primary ads, It ran roughly three weeks in advance of the Granite State’s quadrennial bakeoff, which that year took place on February 18th, a far cry from 2008’s January 8 and 2012’s January 10.
After my op-ed cotillion, I contributed seven more pieces to the page that year, mostly analyzing presidential campaign ads. There was, for instance, this column about the chronic contradictions in the candidates’ pitches.
And then there was this piece that detailed how the candidates kept swiping slogans, visuals, and policy positions from each other.
During the New York primary, Jerry Brown was accused of lifting his speeches practically verbatim from a book by political guru Pat Caddell. Big deal. At least Caddell is part of his team. The rest of the presidential candidates have spent the election cribbing either from each other or from bygone campaigns, effectively turning this year’s political advertising into a sort of electronic swap meet.
It started, appropriately enough, in the New Hampshire primary, which will live in history as the site of the Great Slogan Shortage of ’92. Three candidates used some variation on the theme ‘Take Back America,’ with another employing the slogan ‘Fight Back America’ for good measure. Pat Buchanan updated George Wallace’s 1972 campaign slogan and urged voters to ‘Send a message to Bush.’ Flicking Buchanan away, Bush countered smartly with the theme, ‘Send a message to Congress.’ Still up for grabs is Jimmy Carter’s 1976 riff, ‘This time don’t send them a message, send them a president.’
Lots more relevant examples followed.
Not long after that, I wrote an op-ed piece about the swing toward blending politics and entertainment.
Bill Clinton jams with Arsenio Hall and raps on MTV. Ross Perot is slowly becoming the Popeil Pocket Ed McMahon to Larry King. What’s next – Clinton revealing all on the Playboy Channel? Perot playing harmonica on the Nashville Network? Even George Bush, as traditional a politician as you’re likely to find, is stooping to orchestrated telephone chats with voters. But Bush has his limits. “I don’t plan to spend a lot of time on Phil Donahue shows,” he told The Dallas Morning News last month. “I’m president.” Carpe diem, Chief.
I also wrote this piece about the uphill battle female candidates faced back then.
That, unfortunately, proved to be true.
• • • • • • •
All the while I was opinion-mongering on the Globe’s op-ed page, I continued to chinstroke in the paper’s Focus section.
And what burned my chin back then was the sad state of advertising, which I roundly criticized starting with a piece headlined, “When puffery turns to perfidy.”
Subhed: “Sometimes a company’s justification is as insidious as its ads.”
Within the advertising industry, the topic of ethics has normally been about as welcome as Hillary Clinton at a bake-off. Advertising has always relied on a delicate blend of rational persuasion and emotional manipulation – a high-wire act that tries to balance the needs, insecurities, and aspirations of consumers. This held true even in the salad days of advertising. A 1926 ad for The Prudential Insurance Company shows the spike-topped gates of an orphan asylum in the background, while a young boy in the foreground tells two women, “They said father didn’t keep his Life Insurance paid up!” And you wondered why Prudential was called The Rock.
Now, however, the ad business itself is between a rock and a hard place. Strapped by recession and diluted by a torrent of new media vehicles for commercial messages, the industry has been forced to find innovative ways of breaking through the clutter and influencing the buying decisions of the public. That search has led some advertisers to move beyond persuasion and manipulation into techniques that more closely resemble exploitation. Tobacco companies put cigarettes in the mouths of cartoon characters. Rap stars sing the merits of malt liquor to inner-city youths. Clothing manufacturers use the suffering of others to tout their product catalogs.
Call the roll of the exploiters:
• RJ Reynolds’ Joe Camel campaign. The too-cool-for-school cartoon character is clearly aimed at the underage market, where Camel’s share rose from .5% to 33% over three years according to the American Medical Association.
To deflect some of the subsequent criticism, the tobacco industry launched a campaign of posters and billboards aimed at school-agers. One ad shows kids smoking in the boys room, with the headline “And you think this looks cool?” You can almost hear a chorus of America’s youth exhale a resounding “Excellent!”
• The malt liquor industry’s heavy use rap stars such as Ice Cube and the Geto Boys to deliver their message to inner-city youths. The high-powered brew was most often promoted in its 40-ounce size, with rap lyrics reinforcing it as the recommended serving. King Tee sings in one commercial, “I usually drink it when I’m out just clowning, me and the home boys, you know, be like downing it . . .I grab me a 40 when I want to act a fool.”
No doubt he did.
• The cynical calculation of the clothing company Benetton, which managed to exploit the AIDS issue, the media, and its audience in a single ad. The Italian-based company had fashioned itself a nifty reputation by creating ads that are rejected by most magazines, but given widespread editorial publicity – the so-called “news ads.”
The ad in question depicts a man dying of AIDS, with his grief-stricken family huddled around him. The only copy in the ad is a toll-free number to call for the company’s spring catalog. The ad created an immediate furor that was stunning even by Benetton’s usual sensationalistic standards. The Italian newspaper La Repubblica blowtorched the company on its front page, asking “To sell diet foods, why not show images of Dachau survivors?”
Of course at this point you’re wondering: “Where’s the sex in all this mishegoss?” That was my next Focus piece.
What occasioned that look at the time-honored sexism of the ad industry? We’re glad you asked.
The latest defense of sex in advertising appears in this month’s issue of – no surprise here – Playboy magazine. Its author is longtime advertising bigfoot Ed McCabe, whose claim to fame mostly resides in recognizing Frank Perdue’s uncanny resemblance to his product. McCabe’s article attempts the seemingly impossible: to orchestrate a politically correct celebration of advertising’s use of sex as a selling device. Sure, he says, some of it is unnecessary and tasteless, but in general we should become more like the Europeans, whose ads display “nudity in all its logical glory.”
The entire article, in fact, relies on that same “yeah/but” foundation. Yes, there are abuses, and yes, too many television spots continue to demean women, and yes, even some of today’s magazine advertisements may be going too far. But “advertisers are just trying to stretch the rules to attract your attention. And, to a large extent, they’re doing a damned fine job of pushing the edge of the envelope that contains the rule book. A rule book that, like all rule books, is hopelessly behind the times.”
This is nuts graf:
Further complicating matters, it’s not just unzipped flyboys like McCabe who create sexual stereotypes of women in advertising. Witness this opinion, voiced right after the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings by Cathi Mooney, chairman of a San Francisco ad agency. “I’m sure most Americans are not even paying attention” to the Thomas controversy, she told a Boston Globe reporter. “The way I do advertising is: What’s going to be a strong message to the consumer? I don’t want to sit there and say, ‘How are we treating women?'”
Andrew Dice Clay on line one, Ms. Mooney.
My final foray into the Focus section that year addressed the ad industry’s lamentable history of treating minorities as third-class consumers.
In the course of its history, the advertising industry has managed to raise opportunism to heights that would make Machiavelli swoon. Advertisers don’t knock; they break down the door, as many patrons of public restrooms can now attest. From personalized magazine ads to computerized phone solicitations, marketers pursue the buying public with all the calculation of compilers of actuarial tables. So why, under the circumstances, would advertisers virtually ignore a segment of the consumer market that spends $400 billion a year?
That’s exactly what many minority groups and advertising critics would like to know.
Overall, it’s easier to find Waldo than to locate a black person in the average advertisement. Moreover, critics charge, when blacks are actually represented in ads, they’re normally depicted in stereotypical roles: athletes, musicians, menial workers or objects of social concern for corporate philanthropy. Remarkably enough, you can look at ads from the first half of this century and find exactly the same images. In the world of advertising, this country’s black population is frozen in time.
Thus ended my Year of Total Ad-monition in the Boston Globe.
Six weeks after I sent that letter by – yes! – snail mail, I wrote my first commentary for Marketplace, a piece about image polishing for the political/cultural hoodlum set.
In public relations circles, 1991 may well come to be known as the International Year of the Thug. First, Saddam Hussein manipulates the media so that CNN issues daily press releases for his client, Iraq. And now comes news that two other organizations of celebrated hoodlums are also launching campaigns to put a positive spin on their images. The first is that madcap gang of Russians, the KGB. Formally known as the Committee for State Security, the KGB has announced that it’s looking to soften its fearsome image as an instrument of repression. It’s not that they want to stop terrorizing the average comrade on the street. They just don’t want people to think ill of them for it . . .
For years now, the KGB’s counterpart in the sporting world has been the WBC, or World Boxing Council. The WBC is also embarking on a image campaign, in this case to dispel the perception among the public that boxing is run by unsavory characters. Chief among them is WBC president Jose Sulaiman, who has been variously described as a stooge, a bandit, and a man who makes Don King – the Al Capone of boxing impressarios – look like a stand-up guy . . .
Just for good measure, there was also a mention of Roger Ailes.
A week later I had another commentary on Marketplace, this one about the advertising fog of war.
Since the conflict in the Persian Gulf broke out, advertisers have taken to television’s war coverage the way George Bush goes for broccoli. In fact, if the Iraqis had retreated as quickly as advertisers did in January, Mikhail Gorbachev never would’ve had his fling as the global Monty Hall.
These cut and run tactics by advertisers are nothing new. Specials on controversial topics such as AIDS or child abuse routinely go begging for sponsors. Several advertisers even pulled their commercials from the recent CBS broadcast of the movie Moonstruck, because Vincent Gardenia’s character in the film had an extra-marital affair. While the three major networks drastically scaled back their war coverage for lack of advertising support, much of the ad industry lapsed into a sort of Laurel & Hardy routine . . .
The Stan Laurels, I noted, “after much head-scratching and hand-wringing, went around crying that war is just not an upbeat environment for their commercials.”
The Oliver Hardys of the ad game went “blundering ahead [and tried] to squeeze opportunity from adversity . . . The runaway winner in the exploitation sweepstakes has to be the Lorillard company, which has begun putting yellow ribbons on ads for Kent, True, and Newport cigarettes. It’s apparently part of their scorched-lung policy.”
From there I became a regular contributor to Marketplace, starting with this piece about a campaign for the local ad industry battered by a recession.
The campaign that the New England Comeback Coalition has developed is the advertising equivalent of a happy-face sticker on an eviction notice. Established to try to hot-wire the economy and build consumer confidence, the Coalition gathered its collective wits and came up with the theme, “New England: Buy Smart. Buy Now.” That’s a bit like telling someone with a broken leg to just walk it off.
The advertising industry has always been able to ignore the essential reality of situations, and the Comeback Coalition is no exception. In the face of devastating times for an entire region, its campaign resorts to the blind optimism and full-tilt consumerism that have long been advertising’s trademark . . .
A few months later I trundled down to The Nostalgia Factory on Boston’s Newbury Street to catch a show titled “The Jesse Helms Memorial First Annual Naked Children in Advertising Exhibition Classic.”
The title of this exhibit reminds me of the Miami Dolphin football player who was asked how he liked the new Joe Robbie Stadium, named after the team’s owner. “I’d like it a lot better,” he said, “if it was the Joe Robbie Memorial Stadium.”
Despite the Nostalgia Factory’s sarcasm, Senator Helms is still alive and kicking, although this exhibit hardly qualifies as a target for his lead-footed assaults. In fact, this exhibit would barely cause a ripple in Cincinnati.
Judging from the evidence at hand, naked children were the women in bikinis of early advertising. Ads for a staggering array of products showed children in the altogether, apparently whether they needed to be or not. Why, for instance, would you put a naked baby in an ad for Zippo lighters? Shouldn’t the child at least be wearing flame-retardant pajamas . . .
During the Clarence Thomas rumpus in late 1991, I called for a reality check on brand imaging around that debacle.
Advertising, by necessity, is eternally optimistic. But even by the industry’s normally starry-eyed standards, advertising executives have been issuing statements lately that make Lewis Carroll look like a model of sensiblity.
Take the can of Coca-Cola made infamous by the Clarence Thomas hearings. That was hardly what you’d call an elegant product presentation, and yet, in a subsequent Wall Street Journal piece, a number of ad execs maintained that the events would actually give the Coke brand name a boost. “It will help public perception,” said one. “It’s the soft drink of preference.”
Uh-huh . . .
I also had time to examine the pushback to Big Tobacco’s international expansion.
Now that people who once walked a mile for a Camel can barely make it down the block, the whole cigarette industry has been forced to find new markets for tobacco products. While efforts to attract young smokers have been widely debated, very little attention has been paid to the tobacco companies’ push into foreign markets, especially Asia. But this advertising campaign from a Taiwanese activist group may be an early indication that the Asian market is going up in smoke too.
Established eight years ago to promote the health of the Taiwanese people, the John Tung Foundation is spearheading the anti-tobacco ad campaign in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. The headline of one ad reads “We welcome all American products to Taiwan – except cigarettes” . . .
Then there was the whole mishegoss about licensing PR flacks in Massachusetts.
There’s no question that the people who commit public relations for a living can be awfully pesky, but I think making them get a license is a bit of overkill. After all, these folks are spin doctors, not neurosurgeons. Forget about licensing them – let’s just stop paying them by the word. The world will be a much quieter place for it.
But the concept of licensing specific professions does have some merit to it. If we’re to consider it for flacks, why not for CEOs? They do far more damage to the economy. When the Big 3 automakers alone lose seven and a half billion dollars in one year, it’s definitely time for competency exams, not to mention a whopping fee. If CEOs decide to appear in their companies’ commercials, the fee would automatically double.
And how about the owners of New York-style delis? They’ve popped up all over the country, but most of them couldn’t tell an egg cream from a tongue sandwich at gunpoint . . .
• • • • • • •
Once I made it onto Marketplace, the radio gigs started coming in waves. I pitched Living on Earth – “Public Radio’s Environmental News Magazine” – and, improbably, started producing commentaries for the show early in 1991.
My first piece addressed the drought in California at the time and the state’s attempts to find alternative sources of water.
L-A-X is not only the abbreviation for the Los Angeles airport, it’s also apparently the state adjective of California. I’m not saying that merely because staggering numbers of people sat around for the last five years counting their thumbs and praying for rain. It’s the decisions they’ve made for the past five decades that come across as truly mind-boggling.
First of all, who but a Californian has ever been loopy enough to grow rice in a desert? Rice is a monsoon crop, totally unsuited to any area that’s drier than the average martini. Certainly, San Francisco’s civic pride demands that a decent crop of Rice-A-Roni be brought in every year, but beyond that, Californians ought to kiss their Uncle Ben goodbye.
Another example of an agricultural product that requires ridiculous quantities of water is the almond, which may well be the crop hardest-hit by the drought – an ironic turn of events in light of the highly improbable advertising campaign the California Almond Growers Association ran last year.
The commercials showed a group of almond growers standing waist-deep in their harvest, pleading with Americans to consume more of the product. “Just one can a week,” they said. “That’s all we ask.” One can of almonds a week? I would think most people would have trouble getting through one can a year. Regardless, if I were the almond growers, I’d start working on a new slogan.
By the way, before all you trout almondine lovers waste your costly new F stamps to write in protest, California has a double whammy for you. Because reduced amounts of fresh water are flowing into the rivers and bays of the state – increasing their salt levels and threatening marine life – California golden trout – the state fish, incidentally – may soon be as rare as pedestrians in LA. Or cans of almonds, for that matter . . .
Another early piece for LOE addressed ecotourism.
So let me see if I’ve got this ecotourism business straight. You get on a plane that uses thousands of gallons of jet fuel, and you fly to, say, Malaysia. If you’re traveling on an eco-airline, maybe your dinner is served on one of those experimental meal trays made of grain that can be fed to livestock – which effectively doubles your chance of getting something decent to eat on the flight.
Either way, you make it to the Malay Peninsula, and you sit around a heated swimming pool until someone takes you down to the beach in a Land Rover so that you can watch leatherback turtles spawn, and, in this way, you help save the planet.
That’s ecotourism? Sounds more like egotourism to me . . .
There’s nothing wrong with trying to adopt a form of responsible travel that furthers the ecological, social, and economic needs of a region. The question is, what exactly qualifies? For instance, let’s say you go to the outskirts of Dublin to The Hideout pub, which houses the strong, but badly preserved, right arm of Sir Dan Donnelly, world heavyweight boxing champion in 1815. You buy a pint of Guinness, chat with the locals, and toast the memory of stout Sir Dan.
Couldn’t that be ecotourism – you’ve contributed to the region’s economy, and you’ve helped preserve a great natural resource of Ireland.
Just trying to do my bit.
In July 1992 LOE re-ran my WBUR piece about the Beyond Beef campaign, which drew decidedly mixed reviews from the eco-crowd.
John Carroll’s commentary, taking the “Beyond Beef” ad campaign to task, provoked a stampede of responses. Tony Thibodeau of Santa Fe, New Mexico calls the comments “absurd and immature,” and asks how Carroll can criticize the “documented and well-founded statistics he presents and not offer any substantial alternative.” And David Diamond, of Dover, New Hampshire, writes, “Based on the commentary, it sounds like ‘Beyond Beef’ has been presenting some basic facts about beef eating that are important to know if we are going to correct our habits of devastating the environment.”
And Robert Wilson of Asheville, North Carolina has this to say about Carroll’s comments:
WILSON: His comments seemed to tell me, after hearing them and knowing that he eats beef, that beef cannot be considered ‘brain food.’
Then there was this piece about a seagoing sneaker mishap.
This is a story about the role sneakers play in the cutting edge of oil-spill research. Okay, well, maybe that’s not entirely accurate. But it is a story about sneakers. And oil-spill research, and Pacific Ocean currents.
Reuters News Service has reported that a cargo of Nike sneakers was accidentally dumped into the Pacific Ocean last year, creating roughly two-and-a-half million dollars worth of technologically advanced flotsam and jetsam. Up to this point, according to the wire service, around 2000 sneakers have washed ashore on the west coast, presumably to the great delight of barefoot strollers . . .
The following June I was back on LOE with a piece about a proposed billboard in space.
Maybe it was just a coincidence, but on the same day this spring that the Strategic Defense Initiative was retired to the Ronald Reagan Hall of Mirrors, a whole new Star Wars broke out over the proposal to send a billboard into space. Apparently it’s not just nature that abhors a vacuum. But beyond that, SDI and the space ad have something else in common: both are more exciting in concept than in reality.
Dubbed the Environmental Billboard by its Orwellian parent, the space ad has been more accurately labeled “intergalactic pollution” by critics. The cosmic Carl Sagan went so far as to call it “the thin wedge which may destroy optical ground-based astronomy.” I think that’s stargazing, to us earthlings. All this uproar has Space Marketing, Inc. backpedaling like a deadbeat Dad on payday.
Initially, the plan was to sell the ad to a global marketer for some $15 to $30 million dollars. But recently, a company spokesman told the Boston Globe, “We will not allow it to be giant beer cans or golden arches. Our hope is it will be some sort of environmental symbol.”
Uh-huh – that’s going to be one expensive baby seal floating around. But that’s not the only area where the company is doing the moonwalk. Early on, they said the billboard would orbit for a month and burn up on re-entry, possibly releasing some ozone to help replenish the depleted ozone layer. Now they’re saying that part of the billboard would disintegrate, but the rest would continue orbiting for a year, and monitor ozone data, which we need like another Amy Fisher movie.
Either way, it sure smells like something’s burning. As Space Marketing scans the skies for other ways of justifying its project, this version of Star Wars is taking on a decidedly Wild West flavor. One consumer advocate has said, “Any company crazy enough to advertise on a space billboard will be sorry.” Those sound like fighting words to me. Maybe there’s some use for SDI after all.
Some WBUR expats at Monitor Radio – part of the Christian Science Monitor’s money pit of a broadcast venture – also welcomed pieces like this one about the Styles Section debut in the New York Times.
What always impressed me most about the New York Times was that it rarely felt the need to cater to its readers. On the contrary, it was your responsibility to adapt to the paper’s standards, and so what if the front page looked like an extremely sophisticated eye chart. As a consequence, reading the Times was never what you’d call a lively promenade through the news.
But now the paper has developed a new look that’s apparently intended to make you think it’s easier to read. It’s not, of course. Except for the newly revamped Style section, with the emphasis decidedly on vamp.
Historically, the Times has been painfully inept at trying to be a “regular” paper. We invariably wind up with stories such as “Shopping and Bonding at a Gourmet Food Store.” Undaunted, the Times has taken what used to be called the “weddings and engagement pages” and turned them into a full-blown Sunday section, complete with snazzy graphics and breezy profiles of fashion designers and the like. As with any worthy matron who lays on the rouge a little too heavily, the effect is more melancholy than attractive . . .
Later, there was yet another commentary about sex – and the sexual demeaning of women – in advertising.
Efficiency is far more valuable than sensitivity in the ad business. With advertising clutter growing at an exponential rate, it becomes increasingly difficult for any ad to attract attention. Beyond that, many products are aimed solely at men. Those advertisers will gladly trade a roomful of offended women for one man with a charge card.
And the number of offended women is growing rapidly. In “Still Killing Us Softly,” produced by Cambridge Documentary Films, media critic Jean Kilbourne argues that advertising is a major force in shaping our attitudes toward others and ourselves. Those beach-blanket beer commercials and perfume ads with women wearing only the product all deliver a message about values, she says . . .
Still waiting to this day for that Great Awakening in the ad industry.
I also produced for Monitor a review of 1992’s Year in Review pieces.
As if the holidays weren’t stressful enough already, the last week of the year is invariably dedicated to more retrospection than even Marcel Proust could stomach.
The problem is, if you’ve seen one annual wrap-up you’ve seen them all. especially this year when almost every review has started out with Queen Elizabeth’s annus horribilis quote. At least I had the decency to hold off for a few sentences.
By far the worst offender in the annual derby is People magazine, which is to periodicals what Neil Diamond is to rock-and-roll . . .
• • • • • • •
Nineteen-ninety-three was a banner year for local political chinstrokers, thanks in no small part to an absolute scrum of a Boston mayoral race after Pres. Bill Clinton nominated Ray Flynn to be Ambassador to the Vatican.
Call the roll:
• Boston City Council President Tom Menino, who became acting mayor (or “action mayor” as he styled himself) when Flynn left office;
• Suffolk County Sheriff Bob Rufo;
• Dorchester State Rep. Jim Brett;
• Boston City Councilor Rosaria Salerno;
• Media gadfly Chris Lydon;
• Boston City Councilor Bruce Bolling;
• Boston Police Commissioner and Flynn’s Sancho Panza, Francis “Mickey” Roache;
• Lone Republican Diane Moriarty, a Boston lawyer.
I spent the better part of August chewing over the ad campaigns in the race. First up on the airwaves was Chris Lydon.
On the day Chris Lydon announced his candidacy for mayor of Boston, he was accompanied by Sesame Street’s Big Bird, an absolute lock for School Committee should Lydon win. Faster than you can spell PBS, some public-television bigwig issued a cease and desist, which presumably extends to Barney the 12-Step Dinosaur’s dream of heading the Parks & Rec Dept. In one fell swoop, Lydon lost not only half his administration, but also his one definable image with the voting public.
Judging from his first set of television ads, Lydon has yet to find an alternative definition. The series of four commercials bypasses exactly who Chris Lydon is, and goes directly to the issues of educational opportunity, public safety, and economic development. In the process, Lydon comes across as sort of Ross Perot in elevator shoes, attacking career politicians, special interests, and government mismanagement as usual. But Lydon isn’t as down-to-earth as Perot is when playing the populist card . . .
Considering that most people – if they know him at all – think this Boston Irishman is either a Cambridge liberal or a standard-issue Brahmin, he might consider introducing himself before he starts chewing up the furniture. For all his angry talk, though, Lydon somehow still manages to appear cold and dispassionate in these ads, an image that could make his candidacy all but academic.
Next to run TV spots was Bob Rufo, who got lots of people lathered up over his approach.
For better or worse, Bob Rufo’s first television ad is the official wake-up call for the Boston mayoral race. In trying to stake a claim to the law-and-order turf, Rufo’s ad dramatizes the threat of criminal suspects who remain free despite arrest warrants. It drew immediate protests from several of the other candidates, who accused Rufo of blatant fear-mongering. On Monday Rufo dismissed the charge, telling one reporter that the only people complaining about the ad were politicians, not the citizens of Boston. Of course, the ad hadn’t begun running when Rufo said that.
But it’s on the air now, and Boston voters will finally get to pass their own judgements. The commercial opens with what looks like surveillance film of a typical convenience-store parking lot. You half expect someone to come out and put a syringe in a Pepsi can, but Rufo has bigger fish to fry.
ANNOUNCER: If you stop here for a loaf of bread, you could get carried out. But the thug who robbed you could go free because the city does a bad job of tracking down fugitives from warrants, so they’re free to rob or rape, again and again
Predictably enough, two candidates – former Police Commissioner Mickey Roache and acting mayor Tom Menino – promptly invoked the name of Willie Horton, the acknowledged demon of political advertising who normally doesn’t surface until the final days of a campaign.
About a week later, Menino released his first television commercial.
The ad opens with footage of Ray Flynn passing the torch to Menino, complete with the most awkward hug since David Gergen embraced the Clinton agenda.
The rest of the spot consists of the acting mayor’s press clippings and narration by a professional announcer, since Menino – a notorious fumblemouth – has yet to put Henry Higgins on his campaign staff . . .
A week after that, it was Rosaria Salerno’s turn for a spotlight dance.
So far in the Boston mayoral race, the television ads have pounded out a heavy-metal tune, thanks to the power-suit trio of Rufo the jailhouse technocrat, Lydon the PBS aristocrat, and Menino the Jurassic Democrat. Now a fourth voice has been added to the chorus, and the song it’s singing is The Ballad of Rosaria Salerno . . .
Salerno’s commercials are to political ads what Hallmark cards are to junk mail. The spots are filled with SweetCam images of neighborhood streets bathed in golden light, and neighborhood residents looking much the same. In fact, these are the first mayoral ads that prominently feature faces other than the candidates’, which some television viewers will no doubt find a welcome relief. . . .
Salerno has introduced a human dimension totally lacking in the campaign thus far. That alone will help separate her from the pack. But if a sympathetic nature were enough, Mr. Rogers would be running the city. Hallmark cards aside, Salerno still needs to send voters the message that this rose isn’t just a shrinking violet in disguise.
Last and kind of least, Jim Brett jumped into the pool.
Jim Brett once described his legislative style as “very visible, but behind the scenes.” Unfortunately for Brett, “visible but behind the scenes” also applies to the timing of his advertising campaign, which has begun in the most dismal television-viewing week of the year, unless you watched the Oliver Stone series Wild Palms. In TV terms, the last week of August is strictly Death Valley, but apparently Brett has grown tired of being odd-man out among the major candidates in the race.
Brett likewise holds the dubious distinction of being the least known of the so-called first-tier candidates, making his ad launch even more critical. Even so, Brett hasn’t tried to close the gap in one great leap, which is probably smart, since his TV spot shows him standing on top of the World Trade Center. As opposed to Bob Rufo’s shoot-from-the-hip style or Chris Lydon’s apocalyptic sermons, Brett comes on like the boy next door, albeit one who spends most of his time networking . . .
Brett is essentially selling character, not issues in this ad. There’s no way he’s going to out-tough Rufo, out-talk Lydon, fill potholes faster than Tom Menino, or turn on the lights like Rosaria Salerno. He’s picked his role as the Great Negotiator, the one who splits the difference. As a populist image that may not measure up to Abe Lincoln’s rail splitting, but even then, they always needed someone to grease the tracks.
Most people saw the preliminary as a bakeoff for second place involving Rufo, Brett, and Salerno. Brett took the cake and went into a general-election runoff with Menino.
Which turned out to be less than compelling.
For the past four weeks, the Boston mayoral race has been so bland, it’s a wonder that the Energizer Bunny hasn’t interrupted it. Notorious fumblemouth Tom Menino has spent most of his time ducking a series of televised debates, which has fueled suspicion that he could lose an argument with Marcel Marceau. Meanwhile Jim Brett, who’s not exactly Cicero himself, has concentrated on ducking his legislative past, especially the perception that senate president William Bulger holds the mortgage on Brett’s house seat. All this backpedaling must make Boston voters wish Michael Jackson were in the race.
Even the introduction of television ads hasn’t done much to spice things up. Menino’s ad is standard video wallpaper, featuring the requisite scenes of the candidate with kids, the elderly, and ethnically diverse neighborhood residents . . .
Jim Brett’s commercial could hardly be less dynamic, but the ad does take a run at it. It shows the ever-smiling state rep alongside Boston Harbor, with rotting piers standing snaggletoothed behind him, in sharp contrast to the candidate’s pearly whites . . .
Who’s running this show – Miss Manners? The World Wrestling Federation stages better fights. What’s even worse, though, is the sight of these two political insiders trying to position themselves as agents of change. Menino apparently missed the lesson of George Bush in 1992, that incumbents make lousy reform candidates. Then again, if Gentleman Jim Brett keeps playing pattycake with the race, Menino just might pull it off.
And, yes, Menino did pull it off. Not only that, he became the longest-serving mayor in Boston’s history before deciding not to run for a sixth term in 2013.
(As it happened, I still had the VHS tapes of the 1993 ads 20 years later, so in August of 2013 I produced a walk down Memory Lane for WBUR’s weekday afternoon news program, Radio Boston. For a super-detailed recap of the ’93 race, see here.)
• • • • • • •
There were, of course, other matters to chew over in 1993, starting with Ocean Spray Cranberry’s ill-advised decision to inflict craisins upon the American public.
(Sidebar: Many years ago, my nephew Dan went to my folks’ house on Halloween. My Mom, rest her soul, was dispensing mini boxes of Sun Maid raisins that year to various and sundry trick-or-treaters. Dan looked at the box, looked at Mom, and said, “Grandma, raisins are not a treat.” I felt the same way about craisins.)
There was also the rumpus over the North American Free Trade Agreement spearheaded by the Popeil Pocket Ross Perot.
For my money, the headline of the year appeared several weeks ago in the Boston Herald. It said, “Perot misquotes own book in warning on free trade pact.” That puts old Ross right up there with basketball star Charles Barkley, who claimed he was misquoted in his autobiography. And Barkley says he’s not a role model.
Of course, misquoting himself may be the only way Perot will ever get his facts straight on Nafta. His book has been widely panned by economists and pundits alike as containing more errors than the average NASA project. But economists and pundits aren’t likely to lose their jobs to low-wage Mexicans, so Perot’s scare tactics have continued to dominate the debate.
To counteract that, a deep-pockets corporate lobby called USA NAFTA is now running a television ad to promote its side of the issue. Set to uplifting music and images of Americans at work, the USA NAFTA spot tries to paint the trade agreement red white and blue . . .
Kicker: “Surveys indicate that almost half the population doesn’t know what Nafta is, with guesses ranging from a detergent to a Seattle grunge band. And in a way they’re right. The corporate lobby would have you believe Nafta is the trade equivalent of all-purpose Cheer, while opponents predict high-decibel wailing and gnashing of teeth. As usual in these situations, the truth seems to reside somewhere in the middle.”
Then there was the tug of war over gays in the military.
Many people in this country seem curious to know if there’s anything Bill Clinton will stand up for outside of a buffet. So far, the issue of gays in the military hasn’t provided the answer, despite Clinton’s impassioned campaign promises. Dealing with the ban as president, Clinton has more closely resembled a pretender on the old TV show To Tell the Truth – half up, half down. That translates into the likely “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, a concept that Clinton is not totally unfamiliar with.
So the Campaign for Military Service, a coalition favoring a total lifting of the ban, has been forced to look elsewhere for support. Along the way it has encountered Sam Nunn’s kangaroo Senate hearings, Congressman Barney Frank’s impersonation of Barney the 12-Step Dinosaur, and Defense Secretary Les Aspin’s white flagging of Pentagon hardliners . . .
On the automotive front, Nissan’s $60 million introduction of the Infiniti line of cars provided lots of grist for the mill, given that the TV spots never actually featured the automobile itself.
There are several theories about why the new Infiniti ads don’t show the car. Some say it’s a tease to heighten people’s anticipation. Others say it’s a kind of Zen approach – you know, not to show the car is to show it perfectly. But for my money, the Missus has the best theory of all: She says they haven’t built any yet, like in that movie ‘Tucker.’
Regardless, what we see instead of traditional pictures of automotive luxury are simple, spare Japanese images of beauty: Leaves reflected in a pond, geese flying in formation, pine trees standing in a fog-laced forest.
The TV commercials are 30 seconds of cinematic still life, and in the visually assaultive world of television, that’s a real treat. But it’s the voiceovers that make these spots seem to try too hard for their own good . . .
Not long after that, Infiniti’s rocks-and-trees campaign was jettisoned for a new series of ads featuring British actor Jonathan Pryce.
Unfortunately, the Pryce was wrong.
As with so many things, there’s no accounting for taste in commercial endorsers. Some people, for instance, actually like Kathy Lee Gifford, while others wouldn’t go on a cruise or a diet with her at gunpoint. The Queen of Kleenex, Sally Struthers, is an inspiration to millions, and a recurring nightmare to almost as many. And Burt Reynolds, one of the most popular actors ever to wear a toupee, has in the eyes of some irreparably damaged the reputation of orange juice.
But you’d have to go a long way to find anyone with a good word for Infiniti spokesman Jonathan Pryce. In a few short months on the air, he’s become the most resistable endorser since Paula Abdul committed necro-filmia with Cary Grant in a Diet Coke commercial. At least Abdul could smile and sort of dance at the same time. The best Pryce can do is smirk and walk – neither of which provides a very compelling reason to purchase a car . . .
And while we’re on the topic of toxic brand images, let’s take a moment to revisit the reign of the Queen of Mean, Leona Helmsley, who wound up in federal court in the early ’90s for what a prosecutor called “a pattern of arrogance and greed.”
For pure unadulterated arrogance, no ads in the past few years have come close to Leona Helmsley’s. Except maybe the yuppie engineers in the Nissan commercials who sat around talking ‘bilge for the human race.’ Outside of them, Leona’s pretty much lapped the field.
For one thing, Leona insists on appearing in every ad, which might have been alright if it weren’t for the one where she was superimposed on a dinner entree – it looked like she was wearing a radish as a hair ornament. The headline of the ad was, ‘You couldn’t get a more delicious meal even if your name is Leona Helmsley.’
The mangled tenses aside, if Leona can’t get a decent meal in her own hotel, maybe she should stop wearing that radish . . .
In TV land there was the series finale of Cheers, which drew an audience of 93 million, roughly 40% of the U.S. population, one of whom, at least, found it less than cheerful.
I alway thought Cheers was a reasonably good show, although frankly I prefer drinking where nobody knows my name.
But this isn’t really the end of Cheers, since these days sitcoms don’t die, they merely fade into the 7:30 time slot.
Still, the way the local media have smothered the final episode, you’d think the entire journalistic community just came off a People magazine retreat.
We’ve had sweepstakes, retrospectives, Cheers as a metaphor for our lost sense of community, Cheers as a reflection of the escapist, brainless Reagan ’80s, and, of course, Channel 4 entertainment reporter’s Joyce Kulhawik’s landmark 12-part series, which should go down with the Charles Stuart case in the annals of Boston media overkill . . .
In another sweepstakes, Massachusetts decided to spend $1.4 million on an ad campaign promoting the Bay State as “The Venture Capital.”
In the quest to lure new business to Massachusetts, we have a history of going through slogans faster than the Callahan Tunnel. Over the past decade alone we’ve had ‘Make It in Massachusetts,’ ‘The Spirit of Massachusetts,’ and my personal favorite, ‘Massachusetts Wants Your Business,’ which made the state sound just like the repo man it is.
Over all, it’s a wonder our license plates don’t carry the motto ‘The State Slogan State’ . . .
Thankfully, my friends at Monitor Radio were still willing to indulge me, so I got to produce a piece about the Centers for Disease Control ‘s anti-smoking campaign aimed at adult African Americans, who smoke at higher rates than other U.S. adults. That same population is heavily targeted by tobacco companies, who place four to five times as many billboards in black communites as in white neighborhoods.
The average anti-smoking campaign these days is trendier than Madonna’s closet and twice as loud, presumably because the ads are aimed at a young audience largely allergic to reason. Adult smokers, on the other hand, are either ignored or treated as second-hand villains in cahoots with the tobacco companies. To its credit, the Centers for Disease Control has avoided that kneejerk approach and focused its campaign on the 29% of black adults who smoke, as opposed to an extremely low 5% of black youths. Despite Michael Jordan’s shortcomings, maybe it isn’t all bad that kids want to Be Like Mike.
The CDC campaign includes a television ad that features civil-rights leaders Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and James Earl Chaney, all of whom, the ad says, died for worthy causes, unlike 45,000 black smokers each year. Radio ads pick up on the same theme by employing excerpts from Dr. King’s legendary “I Have a Dream” speech . . .
At issue was that African American organizations were excessively dependent on contributions from liquor and tobacco companies, a situation many critics called philanthropic genocide.
Boston Globe columnist Derrick Jackson recently pointed out that in 1991, Philip Morris alone gave $86,000 to the Congressional Black Caucus, $300,000 to the Urban League, $100,000 to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and over half a million dollars to three African American performing arts groups. You can bet RJ Reynolds and the rest of the cigarette pack were close behind.
In light of that, it’s not surprising to find many black leaders concentrating on the fight against drug abuse, while ignoring the effects of cigarettes and alcohol. As long as the liquor and tobacco companies are wallpapering the community with advertising, even well-intentioned campaigns like the CDC’s will struggle to make an impact. For anti-smoking efforts like this one to work, it may be necessary for the black leadership to kick their own habit first.
Around the same time I made some new friends at WBUR’s Only a Game, where I filed a piece about Nike and Reebok joining a growing group of companies directing Spanish-language advertising toward Hispanics, the fastest-growing segment of the population. But some members of the Hispanic community protested, saying the ads imply Hispanics can’t or won’t speak English here.
For a select few, the game of baseball used to be a way out – out of poverty, out of obscurity, out of tank towns and backwaters across the country. But for millions of others, especially immigrants, baseball was a way in, a ticket to becoming truly American. Baseball, for many, was the language they learned first here.
Of course, thanks to the contortions of political correctness, the melting pot of old has been replaced by a multi-cultural pretzel, available at concession stands in and out of the ballpark. As introduction to Nike’s first Spanish-language television ad, a company spokesman said, “This commercial recognizes that Spanish, like Japanese, French, Chinese, and a half-dozen other tongues, is as much the language of baseball as English.”
Well, French, I don’t know. But Spanish, definitely, as demonstrated by Nike’s ad showing Dominican kids playing sandlot baseball, while burros and townspeople look on.
It gets kind of complicated from there.
Tony Bonilla, chairman of the National Hispanic Leadership Conference, told the New York Times, “the commercial perpetuates and promotes the idea that Hispanics don’t want to assimilate, that they’re isolated, clinging to the Spanish language without caring to learn English . . .”
Whatever their intentions, Nike, Reebok, and other advertisers are finding that the game isn’t as simple as it used to be, and nobody gets a free pass outside the lines. Nowadays, even the multicultural pretzel comes with plenty of salt.
And pepper – at least on the baseball field.
• • • • • • •
As it happened, my radio-heavy year was a bit light on print production, but I did make a few new inroads. At the end of ’92 I debuted in the Boston Phoenix with this piece on the rise in data mining by marketers.
I dove into the same data dumpster six months later in this book review for MIT’s Technology Review.
All the while I kept contributing pieces to the Globe. I filed two op-ed columns in ’93, beginning with this one about political fundraising pitches.
On the religion beat there was this piece about the Vatican initiating a study to examine the ethical responsibilities of advertising.
Yeah yeah – short study.
Over in the Focus section, meanwhile, there were other loaves-and-fishes to fry, like this piece on stealth marketing. (Eventually I created the website Sneak Adtack to chronicle the endless methods marketers have developed to dupe consumers.)
Sneak in review:
In stout Orwellian fashion, print and broadcast media have tried to obscure their various forms of shadow marketing by creating a whole new language around it. As a matter of course, many magazines now offer ‘value-added packages to their advertisers, bonuses that range from special promotional events underwritten by the publication, to front-cover placement of products, to promotional events along the lines of a short story contest Esquire ran for Absolut vodka.
Television has gone beyond the trendy ‘infomercials’ to ‘relationship marketing,’ series-related merchandise advertised by the show’s producer during the program itself, and ‘transactional talk shows,’ where celebrities get the chance to not only plug their latest book, but also to offer it for sale through a toll-free number.
And newspapers routinely run what they call ‘advertorials’: ads that look and read like standard editorial content, á la Mobil’s series of self-serving essays on The New York Times op-ed page.
Another topic I wrote about a lot was the marketing of so-called healthcare reform.
Bolts ‘n’ nuts graf:
Primarily, the industry wants to reach the nation’s “opinion leaders,” which is what lobbyists call our poll-driven lawmakers when a particular vote is needed. “The secret of advocacy advertising,” one political consultant told the Washington Post, “is that the target audience is a tiny universe of highly influential people.”
Just so: The health care industry has targeted its ads at the Beltway brigade in Congress, the Cabinet and especially the [Clinton] White House, the site of more cave-ins than a nonunion mine. When the dust settles, about the only people who’ll make out on the health care reform issue are the owners of Congressional Quarterly and Roll Call magazine.
A few months later the unzipped flyboys at Bud Light landed in Boston with an ad campaign that did not go down at all smoothly.
When advertising holds a mirror up to society, it’s usually of the funhouse variety – everyone thin, everyone smiling, everyone capable of changing at a moment’s notice. All summer a television campaign for Bud Light has turned the mirror on the city of Boston, and what the commercials reflect is a classic advertising image: not-so-bright whites.
The ads are part of a “Spotlight” campaign that Bud Light has run for the past two years in select cities across the country. Boston made the hit list this summer, as trumpeted in the obligatory press release: “Bud Light is planning to shine the spotlight on the city and turn hundreds of Bud Light drinkers into ‘stars’ in a unique and fun program designed to showcase Bud Light and Boston.
And here’s how the Hub looked through a beer glass.
MAN AND WOMAN (IN UNISON): “Hey, Boston, picture this.”
(Cut to Bud Light truck, then Boston skyline, which goes from day to night)
MAN (SINGS): “Bud Light, I love you so.”
MAN: “I think the battle of Bunker Hill was fought over Bud Light.”
MAN (SINGS): “Well, hello, Bud Light . . . ”
MUSIC: “What I like about you . . . ”
MAN: “Bud Light tastes great, baby.”
MAN: “Gimme another one, big guy.”
TWO WOMEN (IN UNISON): “Bawston’s best beah Bud Light!”
MAN: “Go to the nearest bah and have a Bud Light.”
MAN: “Hot ticket.”
TWO MEN (IN UNISON): “Yabba – dabba – do.” (They knock heads, making an empty sound)
MAN: “It’s Buuuuud Light!”
Over all, the ad consists of wall-to-wall burly white guys whose lifetime goal is probably to shoot their IQs on the golf course. Mark Schupp, Bud Light Product Manager, insisted that the absence of minorities in the two ads that aired that summer was inadvertent.
Then again, everything about Boston’s attitude toward minorities has traditionally been inadvertent.
• • • • • • •
Around the same time, this piece ran on Page One of the Globe.
I didn’t write the piece, but I was quoted in it.
After decades when scantily clad women have been used to lure buyers to everything from soap to Subarus, advertisers have discovered that they can treat men as commercial sex objects too. “These are the beefcake years,” Boston advertising executive John Carroll observed last week . . .
“This advertising is allowing men to discover how it feels to watch their kind paraded as headless heartthrobs and half-clothed ‘himbos,’ Carroll said. “Who’s going to protest? A support group for badly built guys?”
Carroll called the approach “equality by subtraction,” as ad makers drag men down to the level where women already suffer.
That nifty bit of analysis got me a plane ticket to Toronto for an appearance on The Shirley Show, where I tried to make a similar argument but was shouted down by a panel that seemed determined to have its beefcake and eat it too.
Then again, the trip wasn’t a total loss. I got to visit the Hockey Hall of Fame and touch Lord Stanley’s Cup. Of course, according to hockey lore, that meant I could never actually win the Stanley Cup, but, hey, you can’t have everything.
• • • • • • •
At the end of ’92 I began pitching Globe business editor Steve Bailey, with some initial success, such as this piece about the image problems the advertising industry suffered.
So I pitched him again and wound up with this.
Next I pitched a piece about the full-page ads that the fundamentalist American Family Association, headed by Rev Donald E. Wildmon, was running in the New York Times to rally opposition to sex and violence on TV.
One ad included the AFA’s list of “the top sponsors of violence, sex and profanity (VS&P) on prime-time, network television.” Number 5 on the VS&P hit parade was Boston’s Gillette Company.
Gillette, apparently, couldn’t care less.
“Anyone who advertises on prime-time television has had some contact with Rev. Wildmon,” said David A. Fausch, Gillette’s Vice President of Corporate Public Relations. “Back in the ’80s his organization was called the Coalition for Better Television. Since then he’s expanded, become a conglomerate. He’s doing alright.”
In other words, take a hike, Rev. Wildmon.
At that point I started pitching Bailey on a weekly ad column for the Business section. And – good sign! – we had lunch, at which this exchange occurred.
So, do Ed Eskandarian [head of Arnold Advertising] and Jack Connors [ditto for Hill Holliday Connors Cosmopulos] like you?
No – I’m an ad critic. They’re not supposed to like me.
Well . . .
Is that a requirement at the Globe – that the people you cover like you?
Well . . . [mumble mumble mumble]
After more of that back and forth, Bailey agreed to hire me to write a weekly column. The Tuesday before Thanksgiving, I was scheduled to meet with him at the Globe to finalize the deal.
Except I woke up to this story in the Business section.
That development was pretty much a direct result of this piece, which had run in the Business section a month earlier and whose headline had totally pissed off Globe editor Matt Storin.
Favorite line: “The Globe and Hill Holliday disclosed the decision in a joint statement that painted the parting as amicable.”
That November morning, with Bailey himself dumped, I wasn’t sure what to do, but the Missus, in her infinite wisdom, said, “Just go to the meeting.”
So I did.
In the Globe newsroom, I was told to take a seat: “Mr. Bailey is in a meeting.” A meeting that everyone could hear through the closed door of Storin’s office.
About 20 minutes later Bailey walked up to me and said, “You know I’ve been fired, right?”
I said, “Yeah – is our deal still on?”
After a moment’s hesitation, Bailey summoned Edelman, who moseyed into Bailey’s office, looked around, and said to no one in particular, “I wonder if my desk will fit in here.”
Bailey laid out the situation and Edelman, to his credit, said “Okay, let’s give it a go for six months.” The deal was that I had to quit Adweek, refrain from writing for other Globe sections, and restrict any freelancing to radio commentaries. All of which I did.
And so in January my weekly column – which I had dubbed Ad Hoc – debuted with a piece that mildly criticized Massachusetts Attorney General Scott Harshbarger’s crusade against telemarketers.
Drove both sides nuts graf:
Roberta Black, director of public relations for the American Telemarketing Association, claims that the ad “throws the baby out with the bathwater. It tends to paint telemarketing with a negative stroke across the board. That’s unfortunate, because the industry employs four million people, all of whom are taxpayers, and accounts for billions of dollars in legitimate sales” . . .
Then again, it’s a bit difficult to sympathize with the telemarketers, who are quite possibly the most obstructionist group since the Nixon administration. Critics charge that the industry has consistently lobbied to thwart government action and water down consumer protection laws. Beyond that, the longest five minutes you’ll ever spend on a phone is listening to a telemarketer explain the difference between “telemarketing fraud” and “telephone fraud.” Paging Søren Kierkegaard, paging Mr. Kierkegaard.
After the column ran the Missus said, “I am so glad I kept my own last name.”
That went double after I wrote this piece about some local advertisers on the Howard Stern Show.
A couple of weeks after the column ran, I got a call from a radio monitoring service telling me I had been the subject of a segment on that morning’s Howard Stern Show and asking if I’d like a copy of it. I said no thanks – because the Stern show at that time was re-broadcast in Boston every night.
So I tuned in and listened to Stern blowtorch me for the better part of an hour. He had just returned from vacation and was working his way through a clip file that had been assembled in his absence. My Globe column was one of those clips. (Spoiler alert: All his listeners came to know that I did not make as much money as the King of All Media.)
Made him nuts graf from my Globe piece:
[Y]ou have to wonder who would advertise on this show. Lysol? Hooked on Moronics? The Amy Fisher pen pal club? Beyond that, who would want to attract Stern’s faithful listeners, whose IQs presumably top out right where the FM band begins?
Try, for starters, Toyota, MCI, Budweiser, Trident gum, and the Florida Orange Juice Commission, which apparently finds Stern more respectable than Burt Reynolds. On the local front, advertisers include Tweeter Etc, Wachusett Mountain, the Boston Blazers professional lacrosse team, Waltham Racquet and Fitness Club, and, for all those Howard Stern wannabees in the audience, the Connecticut School of Broadcasting in Wellesley Hills. Even Massachusetts State Lottery ads run on Howard Stern’s show.
“They do?” said advertising director Roger Peterson when asked about Lottery commercials on the program. “That’s interesting.”
Of course, nothing was more important to Stern than his advertisers – hey, that’s why he made so much more money than I did – so it was no surprise he went Defcon 4.
And then – remember, this was pre-Internet – the Sterniacs started calling my business phone in droves to leave messages like “Howard rules, man” and “We’re coming after you, man.”
Which they never did, presumably because they were too stoned, man.
Anyway, I continued to write the Globe column for the next 15 months. I never had occasion to mention Howard Stern again.
• • • • • • •
In all, I filed about 60 columns for the Globe’s Business section. Here are some representative samples.
Please note my coinage of the term necrofilmia. Thank you very much.
Up next:A magazine goes undercover for advertising dollars.
File under: Camel’s nose all the way inside the tent.
That year the his ‘n’ her Health Security Plan flogged by Bill and Hillary Clinton provided endless grist for the mill.
Also on the health front, 1994 saw the start of the anti-smoking jihad by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. In addition to the DPH’s wave of anti-smoking ads, some of the Bay State’s more enlightened cities and towns started their own assault on the local tobacco-stained wretches.
In another coup for the column, I’m Ivory-soap certain that Ad Hoc introduced to the marketing vernacular the term I-vertising – individuals opting for 330 square inches of fame by running their own full-page ads in major daily newspapers.
Now the [I-vertising] gambit is spilling over to the mass media. Author Anne Rice made the jump from Variety to the New York Times with an ad touting the movie “Interview with the Vampire,” based on her novel of the same name. Initially, when Tom Cruise was chosen to play the lead, a steamed Rice protested that it was tantamount to casting, say, Pee Wee Herman as King Lear.
But since Rice also happens to be the movie’s screenwriter, she has suddenly decided to put her mouth where her money is by advertising Cruise’s performance as the greatest thing since sliced veins. In the ad business that’s generally known as a unique sell-out proposition.
Columns also ventured into the arena of sports marketing, such as this piece about Charles Barkley, who insisted he was not a role model – until he was. (Keep in mind that this is the same Charles Barkley who claimed he was misquoted in his autobiography.)
I also twice reviewed Super Bowl ads, filing in time for the next morning’s edition of the paper.
But the sports figure who loomed largest in my Globe stint wasn’t even an active player at the time. I speak – more in sorrow than in anger – of The Extremely Unfortunate Bobby Orr Rumpus.
It started with a BayBanks TV spot featuring Orr and one of his sons, who phones Dad from college and says, “Well, I kinda need money for this concert coming up.” And Orr replies, “Okay, son, the money will be there before you are,” referring to the BayBanks ATM conveniently located on campus so kids don’t have to put the touch on their parents in person.
I had several suggestions for the panhandling progeny. First, was this: “Of course, for anyone who grew up in the ’50s – Generation Ike – asking straight out for money to go to a concert would be unthinkable. Back then, you would ask for money to buy, say, foreign language tapes, then use it to go to the concert.”
I also thought maybe the kid should get a job and helpfully suggested a few possibilities.
Orr the Elder promptly went Chernobyl, sending me a letter that included the phrases “hatchet job” and “ax to grind.” I understand the former but totally didn’t get the latter, since I’d never had anything to do with Orr. Maybe he somehow found out I was a Rangers fan.
As for my valuable tip about foreign language tapes, Orr exclaimed “Wonderful ethics! Wonderful values!”
Orr sent a copy to Globe editor Matt Storin and, a reputable source told me, Orr contacted his buddy, former state treasurer Bob Crane, about suing me for libel, but Crane talked him off the ledge.
The rumpus did not, however, end there. Some weeks later I got a phone call from a certain Russ Conway – local hockey journalist, longtime Bobby Orr pal, and owner of a couple of auto racetracks in New Hampshire.
Our conversation went something like this.
I’m looking to produce some television spots for my racetracks. Is that something you do?
Not really – I’m just a one-man shop.
Have you ever produced TV spots?
Sure, back when I worked at an ad agency. But I don’t do them anymore.
So who did you produce commercials for?
Somerville Lumber, WEEI, Newbury Culinary Arts – but, as I said, I don’t do that anymore. You should look for someone else.
Next thing I know, I get a call from Doug Bailey, deputy something or other at the Globe, who said he’d been told (presumably by either Orr or Conway) that I wrote the column to try to make BayBanks unhappy with its agency – Hill Holliday – so that I could take over their advertising. That dime-dropping, of course, was rich given Orr’s sanctimonious scolding about duplicity.
My response to Bailey: “Are you an idiot? I’m a one-man shop. BayBanks is a two million dollar account. You really think they’re gonna pick me for their next agency?”
Regardless, I got dumped a few weeks later. I said to Larry Edelman, “This is because of Bobby Orr, right?”
He replied, “Not entirely.”
I replied, “So that means yes.”
He replied nothing.
Hey – at least I got Bobby Orr’s autograph out of it.
My final Ad Hoc column for the Globe’s Business section ran on February 27, 1995.
To this day I believe that a balanced breakfast amendment would be a great step forward for the American people. But I’m not sure it’s all that high on their wish list.
Anyway, there was one good thing about getting dumped by the Globe (beyond the peace of mind it provided to the regrettably fragile Mr. Orr): It enabled me to return to my former state of projectile freelancing.
But, in the end, that took a bit of doing.
– to be continued –
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