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There he goes again, stalking belligerently around the screen, caged by his own anger and by a world too boring, too conformist, too routine for a guy like him. Shake things up! he demands, his motormouth charisma running a megabyte a minute. Don't buy their crap! And he's off, ranting against the cosmos, bellowing a challenge to everything within earshot, his sneer laying waste to pretense, cutting lies and easy answers to shreds without a tinge of mercy. Watching him, you feel cleansed, purged, all your anger caught up and flushed out in his fury.
Except that, whoops, this time he's selling their crap. Former Gen-X bad boy Denis Leary now appears nightly on your TV screen, peddling that hipster staple, Quaker State Motor Oil. Seems to be doing it without much sense of irony, either. ("Unlike that crazy uncle no one likes to talk about," he snarls, "it works.")
Or check out John Corbett, Northern Exposure's sage DJ, Chris, now concocting whimsical anecdotes about guys who live by their hands and kids burdened with overprotective parents, the better to sell you Ford trucks and minivans. Since the high-water mark of baby-boomer sellout took two decades to reach--that being, of course, Nike's 1987 ads that hijacked the Beatles' "Revolution" to package the footwear insurrection--the only thing surprising about their successors' recent, and suddenly conspicuous, regurgitation by corporate America is how little comment it has occasioned. In fact, the subject is worth some thought: Did the caustic won't-get-fooled-again irony on which media-savvy baby-busters prided themselves make them more wary of consumer culture's lures and more difficult to co-opt? Or did it just make them easier to seduce?
Boomer culture still dominates the airwaves, usually in the form of '60s or '70s rock meant to connote sincerity. Even when selling out, boomers refuse to give up center stage. Thus we've been treated to Hendrix riffing for the Pontiac Sunfire, Sly Stone celebrating Toyota's newfound status as the transportation of choice for everyday people, Bob Seger yelping "Like a Rock" for Chevy, and the biggest self-pimping of all, the Stones giving it up for Windows 95. But we're not supposed to sneer at this piracy of the past; we're supposed to feel comfortable with it, familiar. We're back at Woodstock with the SUV and the kids for that upcoming 30th reunion, where everyone there can survey an enormous field of suspenders and vanity plates and smile knowingly: What a long, strange trip it's been.
But more contemporary cultural references, from Sprite's no-image image to McDonald's aphasic white raps, are winning a foothold. In contrast to the boomer references, buster-culture tropes always invite a knowing wink: You already knew that the playground homeboys guzzling Sprite were really just actors, the ad says, and now you really, really know it. Which is why you're going to drink even more of our brand. Getting your cynicism stroked feels nice, doesn't it?
There's nothing new about hip irony. As Tom Frank's The Conquest of Cool meticulously documents, by the mid-'60s the ad world's young turks were already using self-mockery to push product like the VW Bug to the youth-culture market. Yet, as a card-carrying member of the post-boom generation, what disturbs me is the lack of response this time: not even a burp as the distance and satire that we all told ourselves would make us different gets swallowed whole.
Some sacred cows haven't been ground up yet, I suppose--or would like to believe. (If I hear, say, "Radio Free Europe" or "I Will Dare" providing the soundtrack for some guy driving his pickup across the ranch, I plan to slit my wrists with a shard of the "Shiny, Happy People" CD-single. And props to boomer Neil Young for remaining crankily incorruptible to the end.)
On the other hand, maybe the only message here is that the price can be right for almost anyone. Paul Reiser, sure: He probably called up his mother the day he got his first endorsement contract. But how can Dennis Miller keep that smirk pasted on his face when he's hawking discount collect-calling service? Could he be comfortable with the knowledge that he is the most deserving target for all the scorn he has sprayed everywhere else? And save a moment for poor Jeff Goldblum, whose quizzical lapses ("Perpetually...complicated? Profusely...corded?" Pretentiously counterfeit.) are intended to download Apple's snazzy iMac into 10 million homes. At least rappers never pretended not to be commodity fetishists: Thirteen years ago Run-D.M.C. released "My Adidas," a boast about their favorite brand of footwear. Soon after, they signed an endorsement deal and never looked back. Honesty, it turns out, does have its rewards.
Still, sincerity and sarcasm don't make the best bedfellows. When slack-hip commercials aim for irony, they hit it squarely. But their attempts to represent genuine modern slices of life fall flat more often than not--the emotional lives of post-boomers still being terra incognita. My current favorite is the Mazda commercial that features a carefully selected blend of twentysomethings motoring to work, or going for a drive, or something, to the strains of the Nails' non-hit "99 Lines About 44 Women." There's driver Gina, gifted with "geographic memory," and a friend who for some reason dresses in workout gear (on the way to her job?) and can't sing but brings a CD to "keep the beat and keep it strong"; and best of all, Charlie, who swigs double lattes, has a goatee, and, naturally, "works in cyberspace/Backslash dot com all day long." And Charlie desperately needs that caffeine boost: If he's typing "\.com" at the end of his Web addresses, he can't be getting very much done in his eight hours.
It would be shortsighted to claim there's a moral emerging from all this, except possibly that the only room we're afforded for resistance these days is the ability to predict which products will induce our favorite stars to mortgage their souls. Quick, which would David Duchovny pitch more effectively--cellular-phone service or rental cars? No matter what cultural-studies scholars might claim, that's not much wiggle room for meaningful "oppositional behavior" in all this ad-watching. But where else can we turn? When Jason Mewes (the piggish loudmouth Jay from Kevin Smith's films) is given the opportunity to ramble on about running shoes for Nike, how much worse can things get? Even our grimiest, indiest spaces are being bought up, fenced in, and turned into condos.
Detournement is what the French Situationists called it when someone took an ad and tweaked it to reveal subversive potential; but today's ads come pre-detourned, already more subversive than any misreading can render them. The real revolutionary gesture is to read TV with the lack of differentiation it wants you to read with, to refuse the sneer it solicits. Maybe if we all open our eyes and believe, if we treat him as a celebrity like any other, Jason Mewes will become as famous as Paul Reiser.
Or, as Apple's ad campaign instructs us, citing luminaries from Jim Henson to John Lennon to Gandhi, all of whom would doubtless have made even more of an impact if only they'd had an easy way to connect to the Internet: Think different.
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