The Year in Ideas

journalism

THE NEW YORK TIMES MAGAZINE – December 15, 2002, Sunday

The Year in Ideas:
Universal Advertising Acceptance

The borders between advertising and the rest of culture have been getting blurry for at least a century. Until recently, however, they were still distinct pursuits: nobody ever went to a Nascar race to watch the Valvoline and Dupont and M&M’s logos whiz by at 180 miles an hour. MTV changed all that, attracting big audiences by making expensively produced, four-minute-long record advertisements its raison d’être. Two decades since MTV’s invention, a tipping point has been reached. Interspecies hybrids of advertising and entertainment have suddenly become the norm, remarkably unremarkable. And we have become thoroughly inured.

Thanks, in large part, to the aurally omnipresent Moby, the odium that used to attach to commercially repurposed pop songs has been eliminated. In 2002 a new stealth music video channel emerged in archipelago form, broadcast 24/7 in 30-second bits on every network to a cumulative audience 50 times as big as those for MTV and VH1 combined. ”People hate commercials,” says Vinny Picardi, the Deutsch advertising executive who lashed the Dirty Vegas song ”Days Go By” to that wordless Mitsubishi ad with the (sexy, creepy) woman busting moves in the passenger seat. ”We wanted to make little pieces of entertainment, little pieces of pop culture.” Such well-scored miniatures now promote every haute bourgeoisie product you can think of — and in most cases are more entertaining than the television programs they ostensibly interrupt. Which is the point: given the new competition from hundreds of digital channels, as well as commercial-zapping technologies like TiVo, the incentive for ads to function as bona fide cultural attractions has become an imperative.

As recently as last year, Fay Weldon’s novel ”The Bulgari Connection,” written under contract to the jewelry manufacturer as an elaborate act of product placement, seemed faintly scandalous. But this year, as the Sims video game goes online, Intel and McDonald’s have paid the gamemaker to ensure that its characters use the right microchips and eat the right hamburgers. The characters are fictional, but the players who guide their behavior are real; if the crossmarketing works, it will be because the players find it not just tolerable but also actually gratifying to see their fantasy lives and their consumer lives made indistinguishable.

Resistance is futile. And in the face of urgent threats to our persons and nation, perhaps, we are no longer so alarmed by these little outbreaks of cultural decadence. Some of us even find the ingenuity of this new advertising cum entertainment cum advertising to be. . .entertaining, a mutant cultural form all its own. This year, BMW found yet more serious big-name directors happy to make short online films featuring BMW’s and started hiring serious big-name actors to perform in them as well, among them F. Murray Abraham and Gary Oldman. Some of the films are good. Is anyone really upset that Baz Luhrmann’s Broadway production of ”La Bohème” features gorgeous period billboards — actual, paid, onstage advertising — for Montblanc pens and Piper-Heidsieck Champagne? In fact, this cool new ”La Bohème” proves beyond any doubt that the concept of cultural purity has mostly become, like bohemianism, a historical relic.