Barbara Lippert: The Adweek Years 1982-1997

When I was the editor of Adweek in the 1980s, I wanted to launch a regular analysis of the advertising phenomenon. Not even the best-selling book, hit movie or sitcom could be so ubiquitous. The question was how could I do it? The answer: Hire Barbara Lippert.

Barbara was stringing as a part-time ad columnist for The New York Post when I asked her to work for Adweek in 1982. Interviewing her, I was struck by her penetrating perceptions and considerable wit in discussing advertising.

A graduate of Mount Holyoke, she had studied cultural history, art, fashion and politics. I hoped to use her outstanding writing skills and intellectual interests to create a bridge between the academic and commercial worlds.

And it was an awesome challenge. After all, I thought the greatest flaw in contemporary journalism was a lack of historical perspective and knowledge of the history of ideas. This stemmed from the fact that young journalists were TV babies. The impact of television is one of image and emotion, not one of logic and facts. Television deals primarily in symbols–which can be obliterated or manipulated in the blink of an eye.

In fact, I remember when the dominant fad of the ’60s was the Freudian interpretation of products and advertising, a time when some people claimed to see nude women in a bucket of ice cubes! In those days, sexual symbols were seen as hidden persuaders to sales, and these

subtle sales tricks were discovered everywhere. Much later, Camel cigarettes flaunted phallic

symbols in Joe Camel’s nose, as if to say, Camel smokers were more sexually potent.

Given this, I suggested that Barbara study the work of Marshall Blonsky, a distinguished professor of semiotics at New York University. Semiotics is the study of signs and symbols, and I thought this approach would provide valuable insights into advertising, particularly if it was married to the sassy writing and remarkable understanding of modern culture evident in Barbara’s work. My style as an editor was to let gifted writers loose. Barbara exceeded my expectations.

Moreover, Adweek proved an ideal forum in which to accomplish this goal. The magazine could do something the consumer press could not: Adweek could honestly critique consumer products without offending advertisers. Our advertisers were other media; we didn’t run the risk of alienating anyone, save for a disgruntled creative director. So we took the gamble that our readers wanted an unbiased, even, on occasion, a scathing appraisal of the ad industry.

Happily, Barbara’s specialized knowledge and distinct prose style made her the premier

cultural critic of advertising–and it made her column one of the most popular in the magazine. Now she is assuming a new role at New York, where she will turn her discerning eye to the broader aspects of pop culture. She is, I am sure, continuing to delight readers with the succinct and memorable phrases only she can deliver.

Clay Felker

Director, Felker Magazine Center

Graduate School of Journalism

University of California, Berkeley


MTV: ‘MTV was labeled ‘vanilla’ in the industry; although videos from groups like Prince or the Bus Boys were aired. But the consequences of the Michael Jackson songs will be far greater: White kids will once again start dancing to black music.’


Bijan Fragrances

‘Using Hasidic rabbis to sell men’s perfume. Now that’s a concept. The ad is missing a great copy line though. It cries out for ‘Bijan: When a black hat isn’t enough.’


Joe Isuzu

‘Mr. Joe Isuzu, the perfect sleazeball, was created to get attention for a Japanese automaker. But like many simple ad devices, he became a convenient metaphor to explain something in our culture: the growing use of TV to communicate lies.’


Couch Potatoes

‘With all the complications of politics, the economy, nuclear fallout and Shere Hite’s report on how women really feel, a home life that’s dedicated to higher vegeosity seems a sane response.’


Drexel Burnham

‘It was the Wall Street firm hardest hit by the insidertrading scandal. That its ads sell virtue so blatantly could make anyone a cynic.’


Benson & Hedges Cigarettes

‘This (ad) is an early afternoon Passover seder and, after thousands of years of waiting and opening the door for him, the prophet Elijah finally shows up in his pajama bottoms, cigarette in hand.’


Nike: Bo Jackson

‘In our culture of hype, it’s actually fitting that the only place athlete Bo Jackson has achieved his full potential is in advertising.’


Fantastik S’Wipes

‘This is the kind of advertising bizarro world in which Mr. Whipple, having trained at Chippendale’s, would become a Club MTV dancer and Palmolive’s Marge (‘You’re soaking in it’) would leave the world of manicures for a phone sex empire.’


Reebok Image Campaign

‘Reebok is a company in search of a consistent image. In the past two years, the marketer has clumped through as many identities as Imelda Marcos has shoes. With its multiple personalities, Reebok is becoming the Sybil of the ad world.’


’70s Revival

‘For fans of platform shoes, and leisure suits, what could be more fitting than an image renewal for Brut and Canoe? That green Brut bottle has stood atop teenage boys’ dressers for generations. It’s the male equivalent of an adolescent girl’s training bra.’


Presidential Election

‘The issue for the Clinton campaign is the C-word (character). For Bush’s

candidacy, it’s the L-word (leadership). And in a Donna Karan fashion campaign showing a model getting sworn in as President, it’s the B-word (bustier).’


Early Pregnancy Test

‘The e.p.t. campaign brings new meaning to testimonials. Sally Jessy, eat your heart out: New we can feed on other people’s misery in 30 beautifully directed seconds.’


Taster’s Choice

‘Two 40-something singles practice Caffeinus Interruptus. The lovers meet in Paris, and we think of Rick and Ilsa in Casablanca. In Casablanca, we got love, tears and existential heroes. Here we get a jumbo jar. It doesn’t take much to see that the problems of two little people don’t amount to a hill of coffee beans in this crazy world. Play it again, McCann.’


Forrest Gump

‘Much of Forrest Gump is like advertising. Both appeal to the same part of human nature that craves stories in digestible little bits. Think of The Celestine Prophecy as told by Gomer Pyle.’


Ultima II: Head Over Heels

‘The new fragrance bottle is shaped like an upturned pair of legs. What happened to the head? It’s as if a female Disney character, a modern Sleeping Beauty, were to appear on a poster for a snuff film.’


Wilson’s Super Bowl spot

‘Using what appears to be every remaining member of the Royal Jordanian Army, the commercial is a blockbuster. The payoff is the secret weapon (a midsize stone with a ‘W’ imprint) in David’s slingshot. You remember David. He went on to be a Calvin Klein model for Michelangelo.’


Calvin Klein

‘After Calvin Klein brought the homoerotic mainstream and the polymorphous out of the closet, he turned to a less highfalutin’ subject: ’90s kids doing ’60s porn. But few could have predicted that in the end what did him in was the combination of boys’ thighs and bad knotty pine.’


Isaac Mizrahi ad

‘When Mizrahi was asked why he hired a 14-year-old as his new model, he said this isn’t ‘some crazy pedophiliac thing. She’s a gifted, gifted actress. An artist.’ An artist who

studies for midterms.’


British Airways commercial

‘For most women, the image of a young Queen Elizabeth type holding a mustachioed baby to her mohair-sweatered bosom is supremely stress inducing. It’s like suddenly coming upon a picture of your boss in a studded dog collar and chains.’


Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue

‘This issue can be summed up in two words: breasts and irony. Maybe next year the editors can just call a spade a spade and promote it by announcing, ‘We need the revenue, so here they are–nearly naked babes!’ ‘

Copyright ASM Communications, Inc. (1997) ALL RIGHTS RESERVED