The Consumer Republic

The Politics of Fame
Though no one is talking since the news leaked out of Moscow earlier this month, it’s safe to assume that Mikhail Gorbachev’s star turn in a Pizza Hut ad is BBDO’s January surprise. It’s the inevitable spot featuring a high-profile political loser that has become a Super Bowl tradition.
Indeed, against expectations, BBDO has actually topped itself by taking its recycled has-been gambit global. After all, Gorbachev is not some measly also-ran from a forgotten gubernatorial race. This guy is the biggest political loser of the second half of the 20th century.
According to press reports, the ad features Gorbachev and his grandchild strolling into a Moscow pitsa xhat. The presence of the one-time master of the Soviet empire sparks a debate about his role in Russian history: Patrons argue whether he plunged the country into economic chaos or opened the door to freedom. Finally, one babushka puts her finger on it. “Because of him, we have things like Pizza Hut.” We’ll have to wait until we see the spot to know if this tribute to Western democracy’s sentimental favorite is as grotesquely funny as it sounds. If nothing else, the ad is a sterling example of truth in advertising.
Pizza Hut has hit the old riddle wrapped in an enigma on the head by recognizing the true legacy of the second Russian revolution. Thus far, it’s not democracy or a free market or respect for human rights or the broader distribution of wealth or protection under the law. It’s to make the Iron Curtain hinterlands safe for fast food. This probably isn’t what Gorby had in mind back in the days of perestroika. But his commercial turn was worth a reported $1 million to his irrelevant foundation, not to mention something his countrymen deny him: respect for his accomplishment. Such as it is.
Which is a lot more than New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani got for his part in a publicity bonanza for New York magazine. Rudy learned the hard way that, unlike has-beens, politicians who have power are sitting ducks for marketers who want to cop a little attitude at their expense.
Last week, bus ads touting the magazine as “possibly the only good thing in New York Rudy hasn’t taken credit for” were back after a federal judge lifted a ban imposed by the city’s transportation authority at the mayor’s behest. A team of six lawyers argued in vain that New York was exploiting His Honor’s name for venal purposes without his permission. It didn’t strengthen the mayor’s case that even as he was trying to protect his image from the needlers at New York, he was appearing on Saturday Night Live in–mamma mia!–drag.
It could be worse. Bill Clinton is the mockery magnet for the Internet search engine Excite. Stealing material from a stale Jay Leno monologue, its print ad conjures a personalized Internet service for Clinton, featuring such excitements as states that approve medicinal marijuana and raising capital from foreign investors.
One can imagine an alternative to this ad which might hot link the president to subjects such as the tobacco industry, telecommunications and foreign trade. But you’ll never see it. The only way for marketers to cash in on politicians’ notoriety is to ridicule them.
For the record, Giuliani has had the pleasure of starring in an ad that treated him with respect. It was a 1996 bus ad created to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the bus company Queens Surface Corp. Simple, sincere and respectful of authority, it flatteringly paired Giuliani with folk hero Fiorello LaGuardia. But until the New York flap, no one knew the ad existed, including, I bet, the people in Queens who actually saw it. No self-respecting agency creative would ever stoop to conceive an ad so ineffectively cornball.
New York’s bus ad is an editorial comment on Mayor Giuliani, and the courts have granted it the protection accorded editorial expression. Score one for freedom of speech. Yet when it comes to political authority, advertising, free to say whatever it wants, has one thing to say–and it’s never flattering. Institutions such as the presidency are just the steel on which “hip” advertising can sharpen its cutting edge. This built-in prejudice isn’t censorship; but in promoting one point of view at the expense of another, it has a remarkably similar effect.
Instead, advertising saves its kindness for the likes of Gorby and Bob Dole, who, having just added Pentax to his commercial reel, has embarked on a second career. I suspect it’s because minus real power, the persona of political losers gets stripped down to its most essential quality: fame. It’s the one public value advertising really respects. Giuliani will simply have to wait until he retires–or tanks at the polls. Only then will we see the ad that honors him ˆ la Gorbachev, with pizza slices raised on high as he beams with job-well-done contentment in tasteful pearls and a little black dress.