Ad Lib


Marshall McLuhan counseled students of Homo cyber to study ads, the neon unconscious of the modern age. In Understanding Media (1964), he predicted that tomorrow’s historians and archaeologists would prize them as “the richest and most faithful daily reflections that any society ever made of its entire range of activities.”

Right on schedule, here in the year synonymous with The Future, advertising journalist Warren Berger brings forth Advertising Today, a fastidiously researched, visually delicious tome that media archaeologists will pore over for decades to come. Like Schliemann sifting through the garbage heaps of Troy, they will piece together our cultural consciousness from Berger’s anatomy of the popular “Got Milk?” campaign, his psychoanalysis of those weirdass Diesel ads, and his vivid evocation of the medium’s supernova brilliance in the ’60s, when Doyle Dane Bernbach caught the public eye and blew the doors off the competition with its legendary “Think Small” and “We Try Harder” campaigns for Volkswagen and Avis. A social history of postwar advertising as seen from the perspective of its stage managers, Advertising Today holds up a mirror to our common dreams, passing fancies, and abiding obsessions.

In the ’60s, agencies tore a page from the counterculture, trashing the time-honored axioms of industry gurus. Before what would come to be called the Creative Revolution, ads eschewed quirky wit for sober salesmanship. By contrast, the Mad Ave radicals at agencies like Doyle Dane Bernbach and Papert Koenig Lois used slyly irreverent humor and a hip, everything-you-know-is-wrong approach to graphic design to mock advertising, the button-down conformity of the Organization Man, and, unthinkably, even the product itself, as in DDB’s one-word headline for a Beetle ad: “Lemon.”

The new creatives mocked the status-conscious excess of the Cadillac class and celebrated the question-authority, do-your-own-thing values of the counterculture. In so doing, they engineered the cultural DNA for today’s rebellion-through-consumption pitches, from Apple’s “Think Different” to Qwest’s “Change Everything.” They also negotiated a détente between the bohemians and the bourgeoisie that would lead, ultimately, to their union in the countercultural capitalists that David Brooks calls “bobos,” typified by Wired‘s “corporate rebels” and Tom Peters’s “crazy” managers.

Unlike old-school practitioners of the Pavlovian pseudoscience of engineering consumer behavior, Young Turks like DDB’s Bill Bernbach believed that advertising was closer to pop art than to mind control. They swung with their intuition, listened to the ideas “percolating up from [the] unconscious,” as Bernbach advised. They broke down the wall between art director and copywriter and brain-jammed, trading riffs. They thought of advertising as an art—maybe not “art” with a capital A, as former DDB art director George Lois put it, but “some kind of art,” nonetheless.

Berger is clearly convinced by the claims of admen like Lois. He tips his hand in the book’s introduction when he proclaims that Advertising Today unabashedly celebrates the work of innovators like Oliviero Toscani in the hope that other auteurs of our collective unconscious “will follow their good examples.” Toscani was the architect of the socially conscious Benetton campaign of the ’90s, which sparked heated debate with its images of a gaunt, Christlike man dying of AIDS and a black woman suckling a white baby. In an interview featured in the chapter on advertising’s second Creative Revolution, in the ’90s, Toscani exhorts industry creatives to listen less to marketers and more to their muses.

I found myself wishing, throughout, that Berger would stop going for the jugular with a feather. Reading Toscani’s comparison of advertising to Renaissance painting, I wanted Berger to ask him about the industry’s culpability in our overflowing landfills, bought-and-branded schoolrooms, steroidal materialism (Hummers and McMansions, anyone?), racial stereotypes, and plastic-surgery addiction. To be fair, Berger touches on nearly all of these issues; he simply doesn’t give them a thorough thrashing-out.

Although he makes a convincing argument for advertising as the most formally innovative, culturally pervasive medium of our moment (not to mention the best funded), he misses the bull’s-eye when he positions advertising as the defining art of our times. Having usurped the avant-garde’s role as the “antennae of the race” (Pound), it is fast attaining the status of global mythmaker, its seductive images and viral fads the disposable religion of branded youth everywhere.

After Bernbach died in 1982, Harper’s observed, incredibly, that he had “probably had a greater impact on American culture than any of the distinguished writers and artists” who had appeared in their pages “during the past 133 years.” As Berger points out, the medium Bernbach helped revolutionize is now, with the death of God, Marxism, and pleated khakis, the copywriter of our master narratives. According to Berger, advertising as we now know it—what he calls “Bernbach’s baby”—has become “a universal language.” There’s an echo, here, of McLuhan’s mystical vision of an electronically interconnected Family of Man, knitted together via global media in “collective harmony and peace.” Cue the ’60s Coke anthem: “I’d like to teach the world to sing/in perfect harmony . . . “

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