by Matt Taibbi
I was in San Antonio over the weekend, talking myself out of suicide during a John Kerry stump speech, when an Ad Man approached me in the back of the crowd.
"Those press tags?" he said.
"Yup," I said.
"Print or air?" he said.
"Print," I said, pantomime-typing.
He nodded. "So–the studied slovenliness, affected cigarette consumption, strained interpersonal relationships, sure-you’re-the-next-I.F. Stone-and-pissed-because-nobody-notices kind of print? Or are you just a geek for somebody’s news
I stared at him. "The first kind," I said.
"Joe," he said, extending a hand.
"Matt," I said, shaking it.
He pointed, indicating the stage. "What is this, a presidential candidate?" he said.
"Yeah," I said. "John Kerry."
I took a deep breath and translated.
"You know," I said, "Massachusetts breeding, hunt club jackets in informal settings, whatever-gets-you-through-the-night ideology, occasional bouts of quizzical hesitancy. Off-the-cuff Red Sox allusions."
He nodded. "Right," he said. "I’ve seen that. Can’t say I find it too exciting."
He shook his head. "Nah. See, I’m in retail advertising. Wal-Mart, Kmart, Target, those guys. A little food and beverage stuff. Politics, I never saw much in it. The pay is good, but who’s your client? Seriously, who’s your client? A
bunch of primitives. Win or lose, they go out of business in six months. And Jesus, look at these posters! Who designed them–the fucking Girl Scouts?"
"I don’t think they were Girl Scouts," I said. "I think it was Hill & Knowlton."
He rolled his eyes. "Like I said, Girl Scouts. And another thing–I mean, I don’t want to be picky, but look at the candidate! They couldn’t do better than that? Look at his face!"
"But," I protested, "that’s his face. That’s what he was born with."
"Bullshit," he said, shaking his head. "Seriously, if he had a better face, we’d be interested. But it’s just too long, too serious, too 1880-chimney-sweep. It doesn’t say to me, ‘I retain a comfortable disposable income and I’m
really enjoying this Heineken.’" He paused. "Actually, how much do you think it would cost–to get him to walk around with a bottle of Heineken?"
"I don’t think he’d be interested," I said.
"You see what I mean? It’s a dead business, politics," he said, shaking his head sadly. "I mean, you can put beer in anything, even the news. What makes this different?" He frowned. "It’s too bad, because that’s where
all the money is now–product placement. All my clients are after me about it. It’s that goddamn TiVo. It’s changing everything."
At this point the Ad Man entered into a long lecture about the intricacies of his business. By the time he was done, I was ready to give money to the Ad Council of America. Me, the person who once thought seriously about fire-bombing the offices of
Burson-Marsteller. In the discussion, the Ad Man reverted to his professional state. That is, he was extremely persuasive. Because what he was telling me was that new customer-friendly tv technology designed to blot out commercials was already forcing the hand of the industry.
Denied space for advertising, the business was going to be forced to move on to a new canvas: reality.
"Look," he said. "TiVo right now is a relatively small percentage of the market. We’re talking about 2 million people across America. But in a very short time, and everybody knows this, it’s going to be at least half of America.
And then where will we be? No one’s going to voluntarily watch commercials, except for people like me. And I only do it because the production values are so much better. And we’ll have no choice but to focus exclusively on getting the products in the programs. That’s
already happening, but it’s going to get a hell of a lot worse even by next year.
"You watch. By December, the defendants on Court TV will be wearing Seikos. Girl falls in a well: fireman rescuing her on CNN is wearing a Seiko. U.S. invades Syria: troops distribute TastyKakes in Damascus. And don’t even think about
laughing. That’s already happening. It’s just going to get worse."
"You don’t seem too upset about it," I said.
He shrugged. "Shit, I don’t get upset about anything. It doesn’t matter to me one way or the other. But I’ll tell you one thing–this whole thing is actually a quantum leap forward for the business. Eliminating tv advertising will make
my job a hell of a lot easier. I’ll have a fleet of yachts within three years. I won’t even sail them. I’ll just dump ’em in the backyard, just so that people like you can stare at them. No offense."
"None taken," I said.
"You see," he said. "The thing is, a placed ad is a lot more effective than the booked ad. I’ll give you an example. Name me a magazine."
I shrugged. "Muhammad Speaks," I said.
He frowned. "Come on," he said. "That’s just not called for. We’re friends here. Name me a real magazine."
I thought about it. "Okay," I said. "Teen Muhammad Speaks."
"Much better," he said. "Okay, so you want to sell your Libby Lu Muslim teen princess fantasy package. If you put it in the book, you get one result. But if you get an article with a picture of Mary Kate X and Ashley Shabazz wearing
Libby Lu princess tiaras, that’s–shit, I’d say a hundred times more effective. And that’s a conservative estimate. You’ve locked up your Muslim teenager demographic. That’s worth a year of book ads."
"Huh," I said.
"Someday they’re going to look back at this time and just laugh at how unsophisticated we were," he went on. "The shit we’re pulling now is going to look as dumb as socialist realism. Remember that big controversy about those
assholes in the White House who were putting anti-drug messages in shows like Friends and E.R.? Or that stuff about CBS digitally painting ads onto the background landscapes of news programming? People are going to look back at that and just laugh their heads
"Why?" I said. "How can you make it worse than that?"
"Because look at the content," he said. "You’re still placing ads in something. The trick is to place ads in ads. Friends, E.R., the news…the plots are all wrong. You’ve got all this horrible stuff in there:
love interests, curing someone with Mesothelioma, elections. There’s too much distraction here. You’ve got to make the entire drama of existence the choice of the next product. Now, some of the new vehicles out there are getting it nearly right. Take this new magazine
called Cargo that’s just coming out. Have you seen it?"
"No," I said.
"It’s a shopping lad mag. Seventeen for grown men, if you can still call them that. It’s ads surrounded by ads, with ads placed in the ads. It’s fucking beautiful. I’ll give you an example of content. They have this feature in
there that’s called, ‘Honey, does this make me look gay?’ Now, a reasonable person would deduce that, if you made it to page 72 of Cargo, that question is already moot. But, fortunately, people aren’t reasonable. So you get this great thing where it’s a whole
book full of ads that the guy flips through, only to come to the ‘content,’ which is basically, ‘Buy this or you’re a fucking queer.’ It doesn’t get much better than that. That’s where tv is going. Hell, that’s where politics are going. Buy or you’re queer. Buy
or you’re queer.
"We’ve got to move product," he went on. "This shit"–he waved a hand in Kerry’s direction–"just takes up too much time. We need people focused. And they will be. As soon as those old ads are out of the way–they