The Consumer Republic: Sein Of The Times

One of the hoariest cliches in the ad business is the copywriter with a half-finished novel buried in his desk drawer. By day, he devotes his talents to shilling for bathroom cleaner and athletic shoes; by night, he labors with love to write the Great American Novel. Of course, these days the manuscript in the drawer is much more likely to be a movie script, but the scenario still holds. Whether it’s the art director who paints in the barn studio of her weekend home or the commercial director who yearns for the broader canvas of a feature film, the fantasy of artistic freedom still tantalizes.
For those who still treasure this dream, here’s my advice: Get over it. In the first place, the line between “high” entertainment and “low” advertising has faded to the point of invisibility. “Art,” whatever that means, is now more likely to seek direction from what advertising does rather than the reverse. Besides, the traffic is going the other way.
That trend was confirmed in the May issue of Vanity Fair, in which Jerry Seinfeld revealed one of his post-Must-See-TV ambitions: to start an ad boutique. A lot of creatives endure the interference of moronic clients for the sake of paychecks that will buy them just one Porsche. Here’s a guy who owns 28 Porsches who’s volunteering for the privilege of making clients happy. Can there be any greater tribute to the ad business than to serve as the coda to the most successful half-hour in TV history?
As the longtime pitchman for American Express, Seinfeld does bring experience to the job. According to Vanity Fair, Seinfeld writes his own ads (sorry, Ogilvy & Mather), information I found a little disillusioning. For years, I’ve wondered why commercials featuring the star of TV’s most hilarious sitcom were so unfunny (excepting the recent Superman spot, the first laugh-worthy ad in the Seinfeld-Amex oeuvre).
In the interview, Seinfeld unwittingly reveals how the ads could be so unamusing, and yet so successful. If a comic is famous enough, he says, the audience will give him five, maybe 10 minutes of laughs–no matter how bad his material. It’s just a tribute to his celebrity. Commercials are 60 seconds or less, well within the unearned-laugh time limit. Spots are over long before the power of his stardom fades.
When polled by The New York Times’ Stuart Elliott, ad execs admitted they were flattered by Seinfeld’s interest in their business. One would think the guy had accepted an invitation to their dinner party rather than declare himself a potential competitor. I wouldn’t be surprised if Seinfeld has a half-dozen offers from hungry holding companies to bankroll the enterprise.
But maybe ad pros shouldn’t be so flattered that the sitcom star wants to join their ranks. Favorably comparing the performance of actor arriveste Greg Kinnear, a onetime stand-up comic, to accomplished thespian Jack Nicholson in As Good As It Gets, Seinfeld explained to Vanity Fair, “That’s why acting is bullshit.” By the same logic, advertising is bullshit, too. Focus group, schmocus group. It’s all in the timing, and any comic whose mastered the craft can do it.
Despite advertising’s roaring financial good health these days, the often-heard complaint is that agencies get no respect. At the annual meeting of the American Association of Advertising Agencies, WPP Group CEO Martin Sorrell warned of the pincer attack on agency turf as “rapacious consultants” attempt to steal business on the strategic side and Hollywood types muscle in on creative territory. The prospect of Jerry Seinfeld, Ad Guy, may be a sign of advertising’s rising cultural cachet, but it’s also a sign that agencies are losing their business cachet. Buyer beware: As the line between advertising and entertainment blurs, a lot of people have ceased to understand the unique “part scientific, part intuitive” service that agencies provide.
My guess is that when Jerry imagines himself in the ad business, he doesn’t see himself sitting in focus groups or following tracking studies or writing to a brief (for Amex, he is the brief). He’s probably not motivated by the noble task of solving client problems. Seinfeld, after all, was created in defiance of all market-think and succeeded despite the conventional wisdom about sitcoms and the worried interference of suits. To invoke that overused notion, the show was creative. As the product of personal comic visions, it yielded something new. Is that what Seinfeld thinks advertising is?
Well, it’s not. Marketing communications work on the opposite principle; they start not with the personal visions of creators but the personal visions of the audience. Creatively speaking, they put the cart before the horse. Making effective ads takes good timing, to be sure, but it’s the audience who sets the beat. So don’t be fooled by the comic celeb’s flattering interest in the ad business. Art, schmart. It’s just advertising.