Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Market Zero

Advertising appeals to the worst in us. It's corrosive, intrusive, toxic. It's ceaseless distraction. It fucks with our frenzied minds.

Advertising is boring. Tedious. Obvious. A piece of processed food you choke on. Swirling debris.

Yet many people can't see a world without ads. Myself included.

I watched the first two episodes of The Pitch, AMC's bid to capitalize on Mad Men's allure. Only there are no Don Drapers or Peggy Olsons, at least so far. The ad people shown are more cogs than creative forces. Wires in the persuasion machine.

Ideally, The Pitch performs a valuable service. It shows how mediocre most ad pros are. Limited vocabularies. Pinched imaginations. Maybe this will dissuade others from entering the profession. Jesus knows that there are more agencies than a healthy society needs.

Then again, I tend to misjudge desire. I'm sure there are young writers watching who romanticize the game. Who want to get paid to make sandwiches dance. Babies talk. Leggy models purr over deodorized spray.

I've seen them. Worked with them. Beaten my head against exposed brick dealing with them. Not that I occupied higher ground. I was in the same room, after all.

Clients share much of the blame. It's an ad cliché that apart from the clients, marketing is a great business. But lovelies, it's more true than not.

American business isn't known for its conceptual acumen or sense of humor. Bottom lines flatten creative appreciation. Clients tend to go for broad ideas that cost them little. In a propaganda culture, they know they must add to the noise.

Yet oftentimes they're lost, confused. This makes them timid, unsure. They'll commit to a certain approach, then abruptly change their minds without warning. Ad creatives, many of whom wing it in the best of times, become gun shy. The process gets constipated, which explains the expressions on ad peoples' faces.

If you ponder why most advertising is awful, that's a major reason. But pedestrian talents on the ad end don't help either.

The Pitch offers a glimpse at this compromised arrangement. It doesn't dig deep. I suppose we should be happy with that. Some of the brainstorming sessions are wince inducing. You wonder how someone so bad gets paid. Then you go online, open a magazine, or channel surf and are immediately reminded why.

The Pitch inspired me to watch Art & Copy, Doug Pray's 2009 documentary about the rise of modern advertising. The older creatives featured speak an alien language compared to those on The Pitch. More colorful. Literate. At times lyrical. They weren't shaped by advertising. They tapped a variety of sources. They gambled with ideas.

Of course, when you interview George Lois, Mary Wells, Hal Riney, Lee Clow, Jeff Goodby and Rich Silverstein, interesting stories and industry insights are guaranteed. But for all of their groundbreaking work, there's a level of rationalization that suggests they understand all too well their societal purpose.

Lois, whose covers for Esquire in the 1960s remain the most iconic in American magazine history, talks a lot about "revolution." How he dragged clients by the balls to his way of thinking. How he despised the establishment and sought to undermine it. And yet Lois helped to bring Tommy Hilfiger to prominence, something he's quite proud of. So it depends on how you define "revolution."

Mary Wells is no less self--flattering. Given her struggles and successes in 60's advertising (she was the mind behind Braniff Airlines' makeover), this is understandable. But when she says, "I think what you can do is manufacture any feeling you want to manufacture. You can create any feeling you want people to have," Wells admits that formulating desire was her chief task. She frames it as a social good, but there's a mercenary angle to her earnestness.

Jeff Goodby, who coined Got Milk?, puts it simply: advertising is "art serving capitalism." Like others of his generation, Goodby poses as the corporate rebel. I'm certain he's sincere, and being extremely successful doesn't hurt. This gives him the freedom to beautify his social role.

If the first two episodes of The Pitch are any indication, we're not going to see the next Lois, Wells or Goodby. I doubt that they exist. The industry has no use for outsized personalities, which should make advertising less attractive. But for semi-ambitious worker bees, cubicle hives tend to be interchangeable. Their discordant buzz our common soundtrack.