Don't you see?, said Bob. He goes up to a house, rings the area bell, pokes a packet of medicine without a direction into the servant's hands, and walks off. Servant takes it into the dining-parlour; master opens it, and reads the label: Draught to be taken at bed-time – pills as before – lotion as usual – the powder. From Sawyer's, late Nockemorf's. Physician's prescriptions carefully prepared, and all the rest of it. Shows it to his wife - she reads the label; it goes down to the servants – they read the label. Next day, boy calls: Very sorry – his mistake – immense business – great many parcels to deliver – Mr. Sawyer's compliments – late Nockemorf. The name gets known, and that's the thing, my boy, in the medical way. Bless your heart, old fellow, it's better than all the advertising in the world. We have got one four-ounce bottle that's been to half the houses in Bristol, and hasn't done yet.
Dear me, I see, observed Mr. Winkle; what an excellent plan!
1 Charles Dickens, The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club (1837), Chapter XXXVIII, 'How Mr. Winkle, when he stepped out of the Frying-pan, walked gently and comfortably into the Fire', p. 534. London, Oxford University Press, ed. Geoffrey Cumberlege, 1947.
Whether advertising will make it to the year 2000 is not a question a professional commercial-watcher needs to worry about. As long as there is life, we will want to buy and sell. And, as with the products they are trying to sell, the usefulness of advertising ideas is guaranteed for a limited time only. Sales remain guaranteed, it is the ideas which have to be constantly adjusted. That is why advertising participates in the current cultural debate, and just like any other serious sector it comprises various ideological wings: a fundamentalist faction, an avant-garde, an enlightened conservatism. Its own identity as an accurate reflection of social developments.
And yet, the advertising métier is always at odds with its own identity. Because there is a great deal to compensate for if you have to derive your self-esteem from what your clients have to offer. With seismographic accuracy, advertising must register the floating spirit of the times. No cultural trend without the involvement of advertising. Irresistible examples galore. Not only at the level of everyday reality, but also, and just as often, within the cultural debate. The history of advertising is a faithful reflection of this. If art no longer mirrors its status on its patrons, but rather on its own mechanisms, and, like a Baron Von Münchhausen, escapes the fall of history by the skin of its teeth, so must advertising let go of Gothic and history. If sociology proclaims the strategy of social confrontation, advertising confronts itself. A continuous motion, like that of the snake biting off more and more of its own tail. Always on the look-out for new role models, advertising promptly adjusts to the latest fashions. From time to time an outsider lends a helping hand. Someone who very precisely catches the spirit of the time. It will be clear that Camille Paglia's neoconservative history, which, as a variant of Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses, challenges the contemporary, modernistic, conscience, is fresh bait for precisely this reason. But also McLuhan, Boornstin and Roland Barthes, who as critical outsiders have been drawing the outlines of a mythology of advertising, were immediately incorporated and defused by the phenomenon itself. Thus, time after time, the repertoire of empty forms which advertising fills with content rejuvenates itself. Time and again, a precisely shaded mythical background and a temporary stable basis in the history of art and culture for a métier which could not care less about its history, but gratefully takes advantage of this form of respectability.
Advertising swears by irony. It is most at ease in a trite-yet-always-manifesting-self-consciousness kind of atmosphere. And it always has been. Charles Dickens' tale of the urban professional Pickwick and his wealthy friends in nineteenth-century England is an ever expanding, mildly sarcastic commercial in countless instalments. They can easily compete with the irony of the present-day commercials. Whether it concerns attacks of rheumatism which tickle the imagination, or the chances for possible political aspirations, this guidebook to modern living teems with a classic kind of primitive scenarios. More than a century and a half later, the bulk of visual commercials are still a testament to them. The see-how-funny-I-am syndrome proves unerasable. With Nikes on our feet, a walkman in our ears, the powerbook under our arm - and aware that we really should not, but that we do happen to need that new modem right now - we enter the Valhalla of modern culture. And all this still streamlined by a mildly apologetic, ironical tone, meant to conceal the speculation on downright greed as much as possible.
As we all know, advertising will never grow up. Put a cat in front of a mirror and it will think that it is a window out of which it sees another cat. It will spit at the mirror, circle around it. Eventually it will lose interest; some cats never even show any interest in their own reflection. Thus, in his book Never sleep again, Dutch writer W.F. Hermans describes one of the transitory phases on our way to adulthood. Even cats eventually manage to distance themselves from their own reflection. But advertising is addicted to it.
In advertising, there is never a mouse falling off a roof without a reason, never a cat going its own way, never a dog liking a bone just for the sake of it. Every movement, every gesture, every word, every apparently matter-of-course expression, is part of a chain of connections. Every part is an exactly fitting piece of the jig-saw of a narcissist scenario aimed at addressing the public at a level it had thought to escape. Tracing and reactivating the original juvenile reflexes to be able to manipulate the child in the consumer; this happens through a wealth of images from the anal phase of life, to restage the continual rediscovery of one's own mirror-image time and again. All kinds of variants are being played off against each other, in a strict stage-setting, or as a parody, jestingly or foolishly. It is a long, endless search for the ever expiring self-images. We are telling lies and our image lies with us...
By looking at the world in Narcissus' reflection, advertising becomes the umpteenth muse in Apollo's harem. But it is a muse which refuses to grow up. Whereas the other muses are also addicted to the mirror, but still cast a backward glance over their shoulders at the future, an overt, mature doubt about itself is taboo in advertising. It must always keep away from psychology, which is mortally dangerous in its eyes, to avoid jeopardising the confrontation with those most primitive reflexes, with the earliest visual experiences. Because speculation on the yearning for this original discontinuity is the secret appeal of advertising. A continual switch-back to our primary, 'primaeval' perceptions and a deliberately incited, not covert, but on the contrary even challenging, discontinuity have to guarantee constant attention.
No medium could be more suitable for this than television. Because if the public is to remain receptive to the content of the message, it has to experience the medium as literally, as bodily, as possible. The ever shifting image sequences, the flickering light impulses, the quivering raster of the screen (and the possibly, conceptually, still recognisable cinematic image structure) are a pleasant sensation for the alert optic nerve. The more, and the longer, these rudimentary reflexes are activated, the better it is. The variations are infinite, but the fundamental pattern is relatively clear. The body language of advertising is that of movement, a descent into the basic mechanics of looking. The toddler in us has to be rediscovered. With visual violence and tactile bombardments and, subsequently, with methods borrowed from psychoanalysis. The basis of this fundamental pattern was brought to perfection in Hollywood in the forties and fifties. The sublime animated cartoons from those decades euphorically bear witness to this effortless registration of discontinuous movement. It is not only the athletic capacities of Tom & Jerry or Bambi, the way in which Goofy explodes, falls apart and then gathers himself together again, or the elastic nimbleness of Buggs Bunny, but also the movements of the world around them. Constant repetition and points of recognition must eventually force the mesmerised viewer into an alliance. Only then can the content of the message come across.
In many respects, the methods of advertising then hardly differ from any other product of culture. But advertising only excels in the short term. There is no better place to identify this process than the continual staging of mini-dramas in the music videos on mtv. Here, the commercial is totally self-oriented, a commercial for a commercial. But when in the long run a strategy becomes visible and advertising rises above the narcissist stage, it instantly loses all its appeal for a commercial client. Then advertising fades into art.
True art reveals itself in the absolute control of time. In Diary of a Chambermaid, Luis Buñuel seems to shoot an endless sequence of basic patterns for the commercial, which as it were turn time inside-out. Jeanne Moreau plays Célestine (can I call you Marie?) in a high-pitched, steady voice with which she scores off her superiors, keeps her inferiors at a distance and is unequalled among her peers. This housekeeper in a bourgeois milieu is the absolute master of her own fate, between the broken English oil lamp of Madame, the black half-boots of Monsieur Grandpère and the iron-shod boots of the gardener. Thanks to a simple, consistent, distribution of time - by simply denying its existence - she bends time to her will. For the duration of the film, Célestine puts our normal perception of time between brackets and replaces it by the spatial movements of the course she follows. Her movements are completely controlled, like the hands of a clock turning to and fro in all directions, which soon make you forget that there is a sort of absolute perception of time. It seems as if one second, one scene, flows seamlessly over into the other. Time is stolen from under our noses and turns out to be nothing more than an expression of Célestine's position in space. And so Célestine avoids the narcissism of a self-conceited commercial. Which is striking, because her work is so very commercially exploitable.
The perception of a household is the touchstone for advertising in general. Those in the profession are aware of this, and so is the commercial-watcher. This shared obsession for this interspace between work and leisure has created a fascinating cultural battlefield. In living room and kitchen, advertising lights upon the sublime expression of its own identity. Unilever, Proctor & Gamble and Nestlé, and manufacturers of software on the one side, and Philips, Sony and Braun, the hardware manufacturers on the other, set the tone of advertising, together with their competitors. Household appliances, washing powder, food stuffs, cosmetics and tinned pet food form the bulk of what is on offer.
Here in the kitchen and by extension the living-room, is the place where the eternal battle between the sexes is being restaged, time an again. Not just as shadowboxing on a stage, but also as a bloody fight in the cultural arena between the chthonic female and the artistic male. This is the place where life is tested in the exposure of a product, whether reduced to mild understatement or not. In the ritual of washing, cooking and cleaning, the traditional macho-world wrestles with the typically female. The opposition between a hunting and a sedimental culture, a patriarchal and a matriarchal culture, is manifested in the varying selection of desserts and juices.
Dickens was already aware of that. And it did not escape David Lynch's attention either.
On the Air
The most petit-bourgeois, the most vulnerable kind of advertising is perhaps that for tinned pet food; the exemplary blank cliché, repulsive and boring. But always made with the greatest care, if only to make the changeover to commercials for more up-market articles run as smoothly as possible. In the tv series On the Air, the Lester Guy Show (1993), Michael Frost and David Lynch conjure up the alienating alchemy of Rocky Mountain village life in a New York tv studio. It may look like 1957, but this atmosphere is timeless. As part of the instalments, Lynch lends a helping hand to the commercials of a pet-food company. The technical props are those of a drama club from Twin Peaks, complemented by tv cameras and a recklessly ringing hotline connection via a classic red toy telephone, by which the chairman of the zbc network, Ivan Zoblotnick, regularly forces his way in to fulminate a ban. This group of fanatics, cursed with Lynch's own mannerisms and idiosyncracies, reacts only slightly more hysterically than in Lynch's previous series. Here, amidst the ruins of commercial life in the nineties, these drifting time-travellers provide an appropriate answer to all those superfluous questions about where advertising is ever going to end. At the keys, - sorry, handles, this is the fifties - we find the handicapped sound man Blinky, who has a unique gift. Because of some eye infliction, he sees reality as an enormous tv commercial, rudely scrambled together and wound to and fro. Seriously affected by mtv aesthetics, this neurotic is fortunate enough never to have left the world of the nursery. He suffers from the Bozman Simplex syndrome, which multiplies the world by a factor 25.62. But he has failed to find reasonable compensation for the fact that he has never grown up. If there has ever been an embodiment of the dilemma of this profession, he is it.
On the Air shows that there will be no end to advertising until we stop yearning for stimulation. That would hardly seem possible. The hardware will always activate the natural reflexes of our brains and nervous systems; that is not a question of cultural conditioning. And the software is sufficiently flexible to implement technology from different cultural sectors. Advertising bent on self-reflection, always with an eye on its own mirror-image, of course. What is being said here, in the ironic words of David Lynch's controlled anarchism, points hardware and software to the extreme limits of banality and alludes to Pickwick as well as to Célestine. Time does not zigzag through space like a deflating balloon on its way to a futile end, but lies on the surface like a raw nerve, by way of reproach and eternal torture. Absolute time crammed into half an hour. Past and future are released for the time of action. Time and place do not recognise each other, they are not interchangeable. Betty, around whose ironing board the first instalment revolves, is ready for the loony bin, but as long as she is still allowed to cry at the top of her voice, she hangs on. Although modelled on the irresistible Lucy from Twin Peaks, she has no inkling of the right time, let alone one single right time. She is schizophrenic in time and in place, never knows whether she is at the studio or at home with her mother. Time constantly gets the better of Betty - she talks in a soft, unsteady voice -, she is hopelessly overpowered; swung to and fro between her own time, that of her bossy series director, Lynch's time and finally, that of the viewer as well. This lack of any sense of time is also the theme which makes On the Air so amusing. Each character's perception of time gets mixed up with that of another. It is the suggestion of the nursery-in-a-mess which turns this series into a satire on advertising, and not only in the commercial breaks. It is the allusion to the vision conditioned by the picture book, the animated cartoon, which is ultimately the lifeblood of advertising.
Ian Buchanan, Lucy's half-wit friend Dick Tremayne from Twin Peaks, embodies as Lester Guy the visible time in this Lynchian satyr play. Like the weight on a pendulum, he finally ends up dangling head-down over a bowl of Wellbee's dog food. This camera-hot showman who has to sell this brand to the public, finally drowns in it. And has to watch how the poodle 'Snap', which has to be dragged to its food bowl with strings attached to its paws, eventually has the last word. With a conviction worthy of a better cause, it finally throws up the forced-down food.
The end of advertising? What do you mean? David Lynch, the Charles Dickens and the McLuhan of our time, reads his subject like a book. Not the message but the medium is on the air