APRIL / 1 MAY YEAR OF THE DEPEND ADULT UNDERGARMENT 4 page
Hal, having smoked cannabis on four separate occasions — twice w/ others — on this continental day of rest, plus still in a kind of guiltily sickening stomach-pit shock from the afternoon’s Eschaton debacle and his failure to intervene or even get up out of his patio-chair, Hal has lost a bit of his grip and has just gotten on the outside of his fourth chocolate cannoli in half an hour, and is feeling the icy electric keening of some sort of incipient carie in the left-molar range, and also now as usual, after swinishness with sugar, finds himself sinking, emotionally, into a kind of distracted funk. The puppet-film is reminiscent enough of the late Himself that just about the only more depressing thing to pay attention to or think about would be advertising and the repercussions of O.N.A.N.ite Reconfiguration for the U.S. advertising industry. Mario’s film executes some rather over-arty flash-cuts between the erections of Lucite fortifications and ATHSCME and E.W.D. displacement installations along the new U.S. border, on the one hand, and the shadowily implied Rodney-Tine-disastrous-love-interest element with the voluptuous puppet representing the infamous and enigmatic Québecois fatale known publicly only as ‘Luria P———,’ on the other. Tine’s puppet’s tiny brown felt hand is on Luria’s voluptuously padded little Popsicle-stick knee in the famous Vienna, Virginia Szechuan steakhouse where, according to dark legend, Subsidized Time was conceived on the back of a chintzy Chinese-zodiac paper placemat, by R. Tine. Hal happens to know the fall and rise of millennial U.S. advertising exceptionally well, because one of the only two academic things he’s ever written about anything even remotely filmic 161was a mammoth research paper on the tangled fates of broadcast television and the American ad industry. This was the final and grade-determining project in Mr. U. Ogilvie’s year-long Intro to Entertainment Studies in May of Y.P.W.; and Hal, a seventh-grader and only up to R in the Condensed O.E.D., wrote about TV-advertising’s demise with a reverent tone that sounded like the events had taken place at the misty remove of glaciers and guys in pelts instead of just four years prior, more or less overlapping with the waxing of the Gentle Era and Experialist Reconfiguration Mario’s puppet-show makes fun of.
There’s no question that the Network television industry — meaning, since PBS is a whole different kettle, the Big Three plus the fast-starting but low-endurance Fox — had already been in serious trouble. Between the exponential proliferation of cable channels, the rise of the total-viewer-control hand-held remotes known historically as zappers, and VCR-recording advances that used subtle volume- and hysterical-pitch-sensors to edit most commercials out of any program taped (here a rather chatty digression on legal battles between Networks and VCR-manufacturers over the Edit-function that Mr. O. drew a big red yawning skull next to, in the margin, out of impatience), the Networks were having problems drawing the kind of audiences they needed to justify the ad-rates their huge overhead’s slavering maw demanded. The Big Four’s arch-foe was America’s 100-plus regional and national cable networks, which, in the pre-millennial Limbaugh Era of extraordinarily generous Justice Dept. interpretation of the Sherman statutes, had coalesced into a fractious but potent Trade Association under the stewardship of TCI’s Malone, TBS’s Turner, and a shadowy Albertan figure who owned the View-Out-the-Simulated-Window-of-Various-Lavish-Homes-in-Exotic-Locales Channel, the Yuletide-Fireplace Channel, CBC- Cable’s Educational Programming Matrix, and four of Le Groupe Vidéotron’s five big Canadian Shop-at-Home networks. Mounting an aggressive hearts-and-minds campaign that derided the ‘passivity’ of hundreds of millions of viewers forced to choose nightly between only four statistically pussified Network broadcasters, then extolled the ‘empoweringly American choice’ of 500-plus esoteric cable options, the American Council of Disseminators of Cable was attacking the Four right at the ideological root, the psychic matrix where viewers had been conditioned (conditioned, rather deliciously, by the Big Four Networks and their advertisers themselves, Hal notes) to associate the Freedom to Choose and the Right to Be Entertained with all that was U.S. and true.
The A.C.D.C. campaign, brilliantly orchestrated by Boston MA’s Viney and Veals Advertising, was pummelling the Big Four in the fiscal thorax with its ubiquitous anti-passivity slogan ‘Don’t Sit Still for Anything Less’ when a wholly unintended coup de grâce to Network viability was delivered in the form of an unrelated Viney and Veals side-venture. V&V, like most U.S. ad agencies, greedily buttered its bread on every conceivable side when it could, and started taking advantage of the plummeting Big Four advertising rates to launch effective Network-ad campaigns for products and services that wouldn’t previously have been able to afford national image-proliferation. For the obscure local Nunhagen Aspirin Co. of Framingham MA, Viney and Veals got the Enfield-based National Cranio-Facial Pain Foundation to sponsor a huge touring exhibition of paintings by artists with crippling cranio-facial pain about crippling cranio-facial pain. The resultant Network Nunhagen ads were simply silent 30-second shots of some of the exhibits, with NUNHAGEN ASPIRIN in soothing pale pastels at lower left. The paintings themselves were excruciating, the more so because consumer HDTV had arrived, at least in the very upscale Incandenza home. The ads with the more dental-pain-type paintings Hal doesn’t even want to think back on, what with a fragment of cannoli wedged someplace upper-left he keeps looking around for Schacht to ask him to have an angle-mirrored look at. One he can recall was of an ordinary middle-class American guy’s regular face, but with a tornado coming out of the right eyesocket and a mouth at the vortex of that tornado, screaming. And that was a mild one. 162The ads cost next to nothing to produce. Nunhagen Aspirin sales went nationally roofward even as ratings-figures for the Nunhagen ads themselves went from low to abysmal. People found the paintings so excruciating that they were buying the product but recoiling from the ads. Now you’d think this wouldn’t matter so long as the product itself was selling so well, this fact that millions of national viewers were zapping or surfing to a different channel with their remotes the moment a silent painted twisted face with a hatchet in its forehead came on. But what made the Nunhagen ads sort of fatally powerful was that they also compromised the ratings-figures for the ads that followed them and for the programs that enclosed the ads, and, worse, were disastrous because they were so violently unpleasing to look at that they awakened from their spectatorial slumbers literally millions of Network-devotees who’d hitherto been so numbed and pacified they usually hadn’t bothered to expend the thumb-muscle-energy required to zap or surf away from anything on the screen, awakened legions of these suddenly violently repelled and disturbed viewers to the power and agency their thumbs actually afforded them.
Viney and Veals’s next broadcast cash-cow, a lurid series of spots for a national string of walk-in liposuction clinics, reinforced the V&V trend of high product-sales but dreadful ad-ratings; and here the Big Four were really put on the spot, because — even though the critics and P.T.A.s and eating-disorder-oriented distaff PACs were denouncing the LipoVac spots’ shots of rippling cellulite and explicit clips of procedures that resembled crosses between hyperbolic Hoover Upright demonstrations and filmed autopsies and cholesterol-conscious cooking shows that involved a great deal of chicken-fat drainage, and even though audiences’ flights from the LipoVac spots themselves were absolutely gutting ratings for the other ads and the shows around them — Network execs’ sweaty sleep infected with vivid REM-visions of flaccid atrophied thumbs coming twitchily to life over remote zap and surf controls — even though the spots were again fatally potent, the LipoVac string’s revenues were so obscenely enhanced by the ads that LipoVac Unltd. could soon afford to pay obscene sums for 30-second Network spots, truly obscene, sums the besieged Four now needed in the very worst way. And so the LipoVac ads ran and ran, and much currency changed hands, and overall Network ratings began to slump as if punctured with something blunt. From a historical perspective it’s easy to accuse the Network corporations of being greedy and short-sighted w/r/t explicit liposuction; but Hal argued, with a compassion Mr. Ogilvie found surprising in a seventh-grader, that it’s probably hard to be restrained and far-sighted when you’re fighting against a malignant invasive V&V-backed cable kabal for your very fiscal life, day to day.
In hindsight, though, the Big Four’s spinal camel-straw had to have been V&V’s trio of deep-focus b&w spots for a tiny Wisconsin cooperative firm that sold tongue-scrapers by pre-paid mail. These ads just clearly crossed some kind of psychoaesthetic line, regardless of the fact that they single-handedly created a national tongue-scraper industry and put Fond du Lac’s NoCoat Inc. on the Fortune 500. 163Stylistically reminiscent of those murderous mouthwash, deodorant, and dandruff-shampoo scenarios that had an antihero’s chance encounter with a gorgeous desire-object ending in repulsion and shame because of an easily correctable hygiene deficiency, the NoCoat spots’ chilling emotional force could be located in the exaggerated hideousness of the near-geologic layer of gray-white material coating the tongue of the otherwise handsome pedestrian who accepts a gorgeous meter maid’s coquettish invitation to have a bit of a lick of the ice cream cone she’s just bought from an avuncular sidewalk vendor. The lingering close-up on an extended tongue that must be seen to be believed, coat-wise. The slow-motion full-frontal shot of the maid’s face going slack with disgust as she recoils, the returned cone falling unfelt from her repulsion-paralyzed fingers. The nightmarish slo-mo with which the mortified pedestrian reels away into street-traffic with his whole arm over his mouth, the avuncular vendor’s kindly face now hateful and writhing as he hurls hygienic invectives.
These ads shook viewers to the existential core, apparently. It was partly a matter of plain old taste: ad-critics argued that the NoCoat spots were equivalent to like Preparation H filming a procto-exam, or a Depend Adult Undergarment camera panning for floor-puddles at a church social. But Hal’s paper located the level at which the Big Four’s audiences reacted, here, as way closer to the soul than mere tastelessness can get.
V&V’s NoCoat campaign was a case-study in the eschatology of emotional appeals. It towered, a kind of Überad, casting a shaggy shadow back across a whole century of broadcast persuasion. It did what all ads are supposed to do: create an anxiety relievable by purchase. It just did it way more well than wisely, given the vulnerable psyche of an increasingly hygiene-conscious U.S.A. in those times.
The NoCoat campaign had three major consequences. The first was that horrible year Hal vaguely recalls when a nation became obsessed with the state of its tongue, when people would no sooner leave home without a tongue-scraper and an emergency backup tongue-scraper than they’d fail to wash and brush and spray. The year when the sink-and-mirror areas of public restrooms were such grim places to be. The NoCoat co-op folks traded in their B’Gosh overalls and hand-woven ponchos for Armani and Dior, then quickly disintegrated into various eight-figure litigations. But by this time everybody from Procter & Gamble to Tom’s of Maine had its own brand’s scraper out, some of them with baroque and potentially hazardous electronic extras.
The second consequence was that the Big Four broadcast Networks finally just plain fell off the shelf, fiscally speaking. Riding a crest of public disaffection not seen since the days Jif commercials had strangers shoving their shiny noses in your open jar, the Malone-Turner-and-shadowy-Albertan-led cable kabal got sponsors whose ads had been running as distant as seven or eight spots on either side of the NoCoat gaggers to jump ship to A.C.D.C. U.S. broadcast TV’s true angels of death, Malone and Turner then immediately parlayed this fresh injection of sponsorial capital into unrefusable bids for the rights to the N.C.A.A. Final Four, the MLB World Series, Wimbledon, and the Pro Bowlers Tour, at which point the Big Four suffered further defections from Schick and Gillette on one side and Miller and Bud on the other. Fox filed for Ch. 11 protection Monday after A.C.D.C.’s coup-announcements, and the Dow turned Grizzly indeed on G.E., Paramount, Disney, etc. Within days three out of the Big Four Networks had ceased broadcasting operations, and ABC had to fall back on old ‘Happy Days’ marathons of such relentless duration that bomb threats began to be received both by the Network and by poor old Henry Winkler, now hairless and sugar-addicted in La Honda CA and seriously considering giving that lurid-looking but hope-provoking LipoVac procedure a try. …
And but the ironic third consequence was that almost all the large slick advertising agencies with substantial Network billings — among these the Icarian Viney and Veals — went down, too, in the Big Four’s maelstrom, taking with them countless production companies, graphic artists, account execs, computer-enhancement technicians, ruddy-tongued product-spokespersons, horn-rimmed demographers, etc. The millions of citizens in areas for one reason or another not cable-available ran their VCRs into meltdown, got homicidally tired of ‘Happy Days,’ and then began to find themselves with vast maddening blocks of utterly choiceless and unentertaining time; and domestic-crime rates, as well as out-and-out suicides, topped out at figures that cast a serious pall over the penultimate year of the millennium.
But these consequences’ own consequence — with all the Yankee-ingenious irony that attends true resurrections — comes when the now-combined Big Four, muted and unseen, now, but with its remaining creditor-proof assets now supporting only those rapaciously clever executive minds that can survive the cuts down to a skeleton of a skeleton staff, rises from the dust-heap and has a collective last hurrah, ironically deploying V&V’s old pro-choice/anti-passivity appeal to obliterate the A.C.D.C. that had just months before obliterated the Big Four, bringing TCI’s Malone down on a golden bell-shaped ’chute and sending TBS’s Turner into self-imposed nautical exile:
Because enter one Noreen Lace-Forché, the USC-educated video-rental mogulette who in the B.S. ’90s had taken Phoenix’s Intermission Video chain from the middle of the Sun Belt pack to a national distribution second only to Blockbuster Entertainment in gross receipts. The woman called by Microsoft’s Gates ‘The Killer-App Queen’ and by Blockbuster’s Huizenga ‘The only woman I personally fear.’
Convincing the rapacious skeletal remains of the Big Four to consolidate its combined production, distribution, and capital resources behind a front company she’d had incorporated and idling ever since she’d first foreseen broadcast apocalypse in the Nunhagen ads’ psycho-fiscal fallout — the front an obscure-sounding concern called InterLace TelEntertainment — Lace-Forché then went and persuaded ad-maestro P. Tom Veals — at that time mourning his remorse-tortured partner’s half-gainer off the Tobin Bridge by drinking himself toward pancreatitis in a Beacon Hill brownstone — to regather himself and orchestrate a profound national dissatisfaction with the ‘passivity’ involved even in D.S.S.-based cable-watching:
What matter whether your ‘choices’ are 4 or 104, or 504? Veals’s campaign argued. Because here you were — assuming of course you were even cable-ready or dish-equipped and able to afford monthly fees that applied no matter what you ‘chose’ each month — here you were, sitting here accepting only what was pumped by distant A.C.D.C. fiat into your entertainment-ken. Here you were consoling yourself about your dependence and passivity with rapid-fire zapping and surfing that were starting to be suspected to cause certain rather nasty types of epilepsy over the longish term. The cable kabal’s promise of ‘empowerment,’ the campaign argued, was still just the invitation to choose which of 504 visual spoon-feedings you’d sit there and open wide for. 164And so but what if, their campaign’s appeal basically ran, what if, instead of sitting still for choosing the least of 504 infantile evils, the vox- and digitus-populi could choose to make its home entertainment literally and essentially adult? I.e. what if — according to InterLace — what if a viewer could more or less 100% choose what’s on at any given time? Choose and rent, over PC and modem and fiber-optic line, from tens of thousands of second-run films, documentaries, the occasional sport, old beloved non–‘Happy Days’ programs, wholly new programs, cultural stuff, and c., all prepared by the time-tested, newly lean Big Four’s mammoth vaults and production facilities and packaged and disseminated by InterLace TelEnt. in convenient fiber-optic pulses that fit directly on the new palm-sized 4.8-mb PC-diskettes InterLace was marketing as ‘cartridges’? Viewable right there on your trusty PC’s high-resolution monitor? Or, if you preferred and so chose, jackable into a good old premillennial wide-screen TV with at most a coaxial or two? Self-selected programming, chargeable on any major card or on a special low-finance-charge InterLace account available to any of the 76% of U.S. households possessed of PC, phone line, and verifiable credit? What if, Veals’s spokeswoman ruminated aloud, what if the viewer could become her/his own programming director; what if s/he could define the very entertainment-happiness it was her/his right to pursue?
The rest, for Hal, is recent history.
By the time not only second-run Hollywood releases but a good many first-run films, plus new sitcoms and crime-dramas and near-live sports, plus now also big-name-anchor nightly newscasts, weather, art, health, and financial-analysis cartridges were available and pulsing nicely onto cartridges everywhere, the ranks of A.C.D.C.’s own solvent program-pumpers had been winnowed back to the old-movie-and-afternoon-baseball major-metro regional systems of more like the B.S. ’80s. Passive pickings were slim now. American mass-entertainment became inherently pro-active, consumer-driven. And because advertisements were now out of the televisual question — any halfway-sensitive Power-PC’s CPU could edit out anything shrill or ungratifying in the post-receipt Review Function of an entertainment-diskette — cartridge production (meaning by now both the satellitic ‘spontaneous dissemination’ of viewer-selected menu-programming and the factory-recording of programming on packaged 9.6 mb diskettes available cheap and playable on any CD-ROM-equipped system) yes cartridge production — though tentacularly controlled by an InterLace that had patented the digital-transmission process for moving images and held more stock than any one of the five Baby Bells involved in the InterNet fiber-optic transmission-grid bought for .17 on the dollar from GTE after Sprint went belly-up trying to launch a primitively naked early mask- and Tableauxless form of videophony — became almost Hobbesianly free-market. No more Network reluctance to make a program too entertaining for fear its commercials would pale in comparison. The more pleasing a given cartridge was, the more orders there were for it from viewers; and the more orders for a given cartridge, the more InterLace kicked back to whatever production facility they’d acquired it from. Simple. Personal pleasure and gross revenue looked at last to lie along the same demand curve, at least as far as home entertainment went.
And as InterLace’s eventual outright purchase of the Networks’ production talent and facilities, of two major home-computer conglomerates, of the cutting-edge Froxx 2100 CD-ROM licenses of Aapps Inc., of RCA’s D.S.S. orbiters and hardware-patents, and of the digital-compatible patents to the still-needing-to-come-down-in-price-a-little technology of HDTV’s visually enhanced color monitor with microprocessed circuitry and more lines of optical resolution — as these acquisitions allowed Noreen Lace-Forché’s cartridge-dissemination network to achieve vertical integration and economies of scale, viewers’ pulse-reception- and cartridge-fees went down markedly; 165and then the further increased revenues from consequent increases in order- and rental-volume were plowed presciently back into more fiber-optic-InterGrid-cable-laying, into outright purchase of three of the five Baby Bells InterNet’d started with, into extremely attractive rebate-offers on special new InterLace-designed R.I.S.C. 166-grade High-Def-screen PCs with mimetic-resolution cartridge-view motherboards (recognizably renamed by Veals’s boys in Recognition ‘Teleputers’ or ‘TPs’), into fiber-only modems, and, of course, into extremely high-quality entertainments that viewers would freely desire to choose even more. 167
But there were — could be — no ads of any kind in the InterLace pulses or ROM cartridges, was the point Hal’s presentation kept struggling to return to. And so then besides e.g. a Turner who kept litigating bitterly via shortwave radio from his equatorial yacht, the true loser in the shift from A.C.D.C. cable to InterLace Grid was an American advertising industry already reeling from the death of broadcast’s Big Four. No significant markets seemed in any hurry to open up and compensate for the capping of TV’s old gusher. Agencies, reduced to skeletal cells of their best and most rapacious creative minds, cast wildly about for new pulses to finger and niches to fill. Billboards sprouted with near-mycological fury alongside even rural twolaners. No bus, train, trolley, or hack went unfestooned with high-gloss ads. Commercial airliners began for a while to trail those terse translucent ad-banners usually reserved for like Piper Cubs over football games and July beaches. Magazines (already endangered by HD-video equivalents) got so full of those infuriating little fall-out ad cards that Fourth-Class postal rates ballooned, making the e-mail of their video-equivalents that much more attractive, in another vicious spiral. Chicago’s once-vaunted Sickengen, Smith and Lundine went so far as to get Ford to start painting little domestic-product come-ons on their new lines’ side-panels, an idea that fizzled as U.S. customers in Nike T-shirts and Marlboro caps perversely refused to invest in ‘cars that sold out.’ In contrast to just about the whole rest of the industry, a certain partnerless metro-Boston ad agency was doing so well that it was more out of ennui and a sense of unlikely challenge that P. Tom Veals consented to manage PR for the fringe candidacy of a former crooner and schmaltz-mogul who went around swinging a mike and ranting about literally clean streets and creatively refocused blame and rocketing people’s waste into the forgiving chill of infinite space. 168