Barbara Lippert’s Critique

Here in New York City, we sometimes get a chuckle a day from our mayor, the honorable Rudolph Giuliani. The latest from the man who confirmed his girlfriend’s existence to his wife at a press conference, is that he’s establishing a “decency panel” to review art. This comes on the heels of Hizzoner being shocked and offended by two pictures at the Brooklyn Museum of Art.

Such sanctimony is hard to find in our otherwise media-aware, ironic and “whatever” culture. And that’s where the brilliance of MTV’s new deeply dark campaign comes in.

The cable network is not without its own layers of media hype and hypocrisy. This campaign is brave enough to ask the tough questions: What is MTV emitting? Can you get it from sharing a towel? Obviously, MTV is no longer subversive.

These days, the programming consists mostly of Total Request Live, (14-year-old girls scream for the No. 1 hit), Say What? Karaoke and Real World and Road Rules reruns. (Way before Survivor, MTV pioneered the form by throwing together a diverse group of college-aged whiners and forcing them to live in luxury for months.) One of the new programming highlights is Cribs, where we tour the homes of noted rockers and rappers and see their collections of cars and videogames.

So this campaign, on bus shelters in major cities and airing on TV with five different spots, gets viewers thinking there is more to the music station than we realize. It may even be dangerous.

A layered joke that refers to the famous promo line “I want my MTV,” the campaign likens MTV to an STD virus, the kind public-health officials, teachers and parents routinely inveigh against.

“Can I get MTV from kissing?” the headline of one ad asks in bold helvetica. Under the type is a photograph of two crazy open-mouthed kids in a lip lock. In the area of earnest sanctimony, nothing beats the fact that this print ad, which parodies a public-service message, has already been banned in Boston.

Actually, it’s the only photo in the MTV campaign that’s graphic, and I understand not wanting a little kid to examine it too closely. The others (“Talk to your partner about MTV,” “The best defense against MTV is abstinence”) are more innocuous, playing off the look of attitudinal fashion ads.

The TV campaign is less involved with sex and more enamored of government mind control. These spots, which are pretty creepy, speak to the acne and paranoia crowd, the budding Oliver Stones. (Conspiracies theories are big business with this demographic.)

I personally like the spot that shows documentary-style footage of transmitters, satellites and security areas and ends with a statement likening the cable network to radio-active waste: “The U.S. alone has enough MTV to blanket the globe 400 times over.”

Another ad suggests that man did not land on the moon; it was just a studio setup for an MTV shoot. (In the beginning, when MTV needed promo filler, it ran old NASA footage it got for free; hence, the astronaut statue for the MTV awards.)

Even more ominous is the new little icon, an owl, which appears in each ad over the phrase “We’re watching.” He’s not the familiar Wyse owl of our youth or a cartoon smart guy with a mortarboard. Instead, he has thick yellow beams coming out of his eyes—a Linda Blair meets Marilyn Manson effect.

In the TV spots, he emits a chilling, earsplitting sound, somewhere between “Paul is dead” and Yoko’s music. His intention is as hard to decipher as his sound. Just who is watching whom? Maybe Rudy can start a panel.