So Madonna poses naked with female skinheads in her Sex book? Big deal. Fergie gets her toes sucked? Who cares? Charles and Di split? No surprise. Woody dates Soon" data-categories = "" data-popup = "" data-ads = "Yes" data-company = "[]" data-outstream = "yes" data-auth = "" >

We will not be shocked shocked By Barbara Lipper

So Madonna poses naked with female skinheads in her Sex book? Big deal. Fergie gets her toes sucked? Who cares? Charles and Di split? No surprise. Woody dates Soon

All in all, 1992 will stand as the year in which we were not shocked. Shaken, maybe, but certainly not surprised.
How else could H. Ross Perot do the unthinkable – drop in and out of the presidential race – and still go on to get 19% of the vote?
Or for that matter, at what other time could a guy like Bill Clinton have stepped up and captured the White House?
These days, we’re so bombarded by disasters and unsolvable problems, in the media and in our own lives, that we build up certain immunities to shock. We have to, to survive. What’s more, the inevitable cycles of our culture get us calloused about reality.
That’s what happens when we get simulations of simulations, like Madonna’s book. Or the new ‘grunge’ trend in fashion. Now, instead of going to the Salvation Army for a see-through crochet vest from the ’70s for $1.25, we can buy a couture version of the same thing, designed by Anna Sui, for $450.
Perhaps some of the contradictions and oddities of 1992 can also be explained by the P.I. theory, which goes something like this: If you’re politically incorrect on one count, you hardly notice; If you’re politically incorrect on two, it cancels itself out, like a double negative; And if you manage to hit three incorrectly, it just anaesthetizes us even more.
That’s how Clinton survived the revelations early in his campaign that he was a pot-smoking draft dodger who was unfaithful to his wife. Al Gore, meanwhile, proves the theory on the other end. Ever-so-impenetrably correct (even to the point of forgiving Tipper her rock lyric ratings), he had to be relegated to the vice presidency.
Rapper Marky Mark, however, is a perfect example of the double P.I. theory in action. Here’s a white guy who uses the affectations of black street culture. He’s a pumped-up sexual Neanderthal who’s beloved by straight women and gay men alike.
The year’s big story was the way Ross Perot revolutionized political media. It’s true that by doing that Larry King thang, he had more control over the process and gave us the sense that we did too. It still remains to be seen, though, if he actually established a precedent for the brilliant use of ‘long-form’ advertising.
The difference in the Perot-fo-mercial is that he was all ear. In short, he appealed to our need for the classic sales pitch in the form of no-nonsense, direct, colorful chatter.
This was just the way traditional advertising got its start, when ‘admen’ took over from revivalist preachers. And this was how the industry flourished through the great days of radio. Perot’s pitch took us back, and even his Art Linkletter-era graphics didn’t matter. We wanted the real thing, the old-fashioned, still-hypnotic patter.
So far, the new Perot-based interest in infomercials seems to have resulted in a little more work for Lyle Waggoner (he was selling an impotence cure from the people who brought us the Euro Trym Diet Patch until the FTC got after the company) and Ricardo Montalban (another long-play spokesman). We’ve also gotten Dionne Warwick’s Psychic Friends Network. For sure, that’s what friends are for.
Then there is the true breakthrough, The Ringers from Bell Atlantic, a 30-minute info-sitcom-mercial that seems to operate on the old ’50s idea of TV for the lowest common denominator. The Ringers is so bad, so pandering, so I.Q. slashing and so obvious in setting up the numbing sales pitch (‘Three-way calling is a snap to use, and it’s fun . . . ‘) that it’s oddly riveting. Or as Mark Crispin Miller told The New York Times: ‘What people seem to want from an infomercial is something wholly and brainlessly affirmative.’
This is certainly the case in watching the Ringer family (Ronnie, Rachel, Ralph and Rhonda) in action. But I kept worrying that in being presented with so many exciting phone options, Grandpa Roscoe would keel over and become, yes, a dead Ringer. Overall, the show made me hanker for the Farfel family.
Meanwhile, another series swept the nation: that wacky couple practicing caffeinus interruptus on behalf of Taster’s Choice. This is hardly the greatest love story since Tristan and Isolde. But its success does say something about that same simulation of a simulation cycle. The story is reportedly, yes, the basis of a forthcoming book (‘If you loved the 30-second commercial . . . ‘). It’s the licensing deal that defies gravity. Instead of reducing the idea to an emblem on an umbrella or a cup, it gets blown up into great literature.
Speaking of great literature and the inexorable TV/marketing nexus, two of advertising’s top pitchwomen – Ivana Trump and Kathie Lee Gifford – actually had bestsellers this year, which gives us some idea of the market in this so-called Year of the Woman.
So what were the ad images like for women? Well, for one thing, the Guess girl’s breasts got a lot bigger.
Obviously, the Guess ads have never been feminist (a demeaning campaign shot for the company by Wayne Maser quite a few years back even rated several pages in Susan Faludi’s book, Backlash). But the Marciano brothers consistently have impact, both on the market and in imagery.
Paul Marciano, Guess’ one-man ad creator, has always used unknown models who then go on to the major big-time, women like Carrie Otis, Claudia Schiffer, and Estelle, of Victoria’s Secret fame. (Let’s not forget that the model in his most notorious series of Guess ads, the little-girl-on-her-knees-before-the-older-man, was Carla Bruni, who is now denying her affair with Mick Jagger.)
The ad vision of Paul Marciano – whose father was a rabbi, by the way – is based on an interpretation of the American movies he saw as a teenager in Marseilles, France. That’s one reason why the whole jeans category has been caught up in a James Deanish, Norma Jeanish image mode for the past few years.
What saved some of the Guess pictures from seeming merely exploitative were their references to old movies and movie stars. Post-modern ‘quoting’ of famous shots of Marilyn Monroe or Anita Ekberg gives the pictures an aesthetic hipness that removes the taint of direct sexism.
The new Guess model is Anna Nicole Smith, an amalgam of ’50s obsessions with blondes and breasts in the Jayne Mansfield tradition. (Let’s not forget the ’57 Cadillac tailfins.) Paul Marciano says he found Smith on the cover of Playboy and maintains, in mythic Hollywood style, that she was actually a cashier at Wal-Mart at the time.
‘She’s really a farm girl,’ Marciano says in his French accent, charmingly alluding to the fact that her body is all-natural. ‘You should see her butt and legs.’ Also, he adds, ‘she doesn’t know where is a gym.’
It’s amazing how much power a breast has. But a previous Guess campaign brings up a new question to consider in our no-shock times. If you create an ad that’s a sexed-up synthesis of ’60 movies, and it is then exactly reproduced by another jeans maker, is the viewer shocked by the sex, by the blatant plagiarism, or neither? Again, does a shocker of a rip-off, a simulation of a simulation, automatically cancel itself out?
I refer to an ‘outsert’ for Request Jeans that ran last fall. The black-and-white photo scenario involved two female jewel thieves, a male hustler and a hotel room. I said at the time that the campaign was ‘part Thelma & Louise, part Guess jeans and part Hustler magazine.’
But I take that back, having later seen pictures of Guess ads that were shot at least one year earlier. In an amazingly brazen way, the Request photos reproduce the Guess work virtually shot by shot. Same out-of-the-way desert location. Same props. Same styling. Same makeup. Same look. Except that the Guess models were Shana Zadrick and Yasmin.
This was also the year of the Snapple commercial that made Howard Stern seem feminist. The spot, ‘Beach,’ combined elements of 10 (as in Bo Derek) and the Swedish Bikini Team, with the added charm of a tight shot of the model’s volleyball-sized breasts heaving as she ran, along with a close-up of her groin-on-the-go. (‘She’s a very talented actress,’ the Snapple ad director said.)
The fact is that fear of litigation has had a chilling effect on advertising’s traditionally babe-heavy categories, especially beer. The aggressive bikinis generally appear only in Juicy Fruit commercials nowadays. So it is hard to believe that anything this bad could have gotten on the air in 1992, but it did.
Snapple has changed agencies since its day at the beach. But it did just go public – quite successfully, in fact – which means the company manages to retain great brand equity despite this sort of promotion. Perhaps Snapple has something in positioning itself as the smelly, polyester leisure suit of New Age imagery.
Also entering the New Age drink fray are Coke and Pepsi, which introduced Tab Clear and Crystal Pepsi. Obviously, Snapple already has a lock on the puerile imagery angle. But clearly the big two are following suit in the antichrist marketing sensibility. A tasting of Tab Clear and Crystal Pepsi, made me rethink all of my diet cola addictions to the point where I never want to touch any diet drink again.
And speaking of simulations of simulations, only in America could softdrink companies come up with bottled water doctored with caffeine and/or sugar or NutraSweet as a refreshing alternative to soda. Never mind cannibalization. If something clear can taste so awful, so sacchariney and so bad for you, what then does the dark stuff do?
Behind that question, of course, lies the realization that no matter how marketing desensitized and calloused we get, in the end, there still is one shock: the truth.
Copyright Adweek L.P. (1993)