by Pat Holt
Friday, March 9, 2001
THE POWER OF ADVERTISING
Former bookseller Pat Cody is the person to whom I blurted my Fear of Stalker Novels (see #186) because she first confessed to me her own puzzlement, which I share, over what might be called the Dead Women in the Shower motif of Perry Ellis ads.
This column is as much about the power of language as it is about the industry that buys and sells language, so I was intrigued, along with Pat, to see how long fashion ads would use the Dead Woman motif or the All-Around Sluts theme (same thing) in upmarket magazines (Vanity Fair, New Yorker, New York Times Sunday Magazine, etc.).
For example, in a recent New Yorker supplement, a double-page ad shows a naked woman holding fig leaves against her private parts on a busy New York street while a hairdresser seems to be fixing her hair (or is he a stranger assaulting her?).
In the background, someone utters the caption to the ad, "Hey, there's a silver one."
The reference to "one" is intriguing because the eye goes immediately to the model at the center of the ad, as though she is the object or some part of her, presumably beneath the fig leaves (and now we notice they're really arugula leaves, ha ha), all of it relating to her sullen pouty look.
But oh, those clever advertising types! Behind the model and on the other side of the busy New York street sits a barely detectable silver Volkswagen. How original: the "object" of the entire photo is a car.
Well, maybe someone thought the modern-day version of using a pretty girl to attract the male buyer's eye could use an update. But it does seem a double insult was intended: We paid this woman to take her clothes off, but she doesn't compare to the silver Volkswagen behind her.
And what detail goes into that message: The model's body has been sprayed with gold glitter to make her look sweaty and cheap. Greenish lighting gives her a ghoulish tint, and the attendant is pawing at the blondish tips of dark rooty hair so it'll appear wild and unkempt.
I guess some people looking at this ad will buy VWs, but I wonder how many others will see its theme as sad and impoverished. The woman looks like a slave standing there, exposed and vulnerable (crowds of men in the background are gawking).
She's forced to hold these not-so-big leaves daintily to her chest as if bringing the eye to her body parts increases their value to the sponsor. "Hey, there goes a silver one," says the message. As opposed to this tawdry gold one. Cute.
But the worst of these ads are coming from Christian Dior, starting (as far as I know) in Vanity Fair. Here we see greased-up, oil-splattered, possibly mud-caked girls (they look about 14) sitting in the back seats of cars. Their expressions are as surly and ugly as their filthy appearance, except for their Dior purse or Dior jacket or Dior accessories, which are immaculate.
They all offer little surprises, like the open safety pin through an upper lip or a thigh tied with twine, but their message is unmistakable: No matter how filthy/stupid/lost/terrified I am, these clothes are cool.
The one that hits a new low is a two-pager in which a nearly naked girl who looks like she's been run over by a car lays her ink-beflecked body down while tugging down on what can only be called a Dior loin cloth, as her lover - of course we can't tell the gender - gets ready to ... to ... have his/her/its way with her.
Pat sent this ad over with the message, "I give up," and you have to laugh, almost out of hopelessness, at the adolescent theatrics. Perhaps Dior wants to turn the tables on the freshly scrubbed charm of those neatly dressed kids in Tommy Hilfiger ads. Perhaps an esoteric game is being played by creative teams at ad agencies.
It would all be rather silly if the language of these consumer ads weren't so universal, and that language says (aside from All Girls Are Sluts, of course), "Well, you're going to buy SOMETHING because you're trapped in this insane consumer culture as much as we are. So we'll do anything to get your attention."
Much the same thing is conveyed in the current explosion of direct-to-consumer (DTC) television ads about consumer drugs. "Well, you're going to take SOMETHING, so who cares what this pill is for? See these people gamboling inna fields? That sex-filled, dense-boned, easy-jointed, anxiety-free, ageless life can be yours."
I call it an explosion because the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) lifted many of its limitations on direct-to-consumer ads in 1997, allowing drug companies to side-step doctors and woo the public.
As a result, "pharmaceutical companies spent an estimated $1.7 billion on TV advertising in 2000," writer Lisa Belkin writes in an excellent Mother Jones cover story. That's "50 percent more than what they spent in 1999, more than double the 1998 amount."
Half the time the DTC ads are so romantic and vague, we don't know what's being advertised. "What are we to make of new ads like those for Prilosec," asks Belkin, "that feature a lithe woman in a flowing purple gown against the background of a clock with the uninformative slogan, 'It's Prilosec Time'? Is this a cure for depression? Irregularity? The ad itself gives no clue."
Sometimes we do get a hint, and here's the message: Arthritis, depression, osteoporosis, allergies, migraines, anxiety, premenstrual disphoria, erectile dysfunction and other ailments are all simple to cure! In post-Prozac America, you may feel lousy for no reason, but pills are always cool.
And sure, these drugs have side effects, but we stopped listening to FDA warnings years ago, didn't we? It's just a formality and the point is that since the FDA opened the door on direct-to-consumer ads, drug makers have become addicted to the medium.
The power of the ads is so great that the company making Claritin "spent $185 million on advertising and saw sales more than double to $2.1 billion." In a single year! In '99, the makers of Zyrtec "saw a 32 percent increase in sales; that same year Aventis spent $43 million to promote Allegra,and sales increased by 50 percent."
I think of Pat Cody again because she is one of the leaders at DES Action, a national, non-profit consumer organization dedicated to informing the public about the drug DES (diethylstilbestrol) and helping DES-exposed individuals find medical treatment.
DES is a synthetic estrogen drug that was given to millions of pregnant women, primarily from 1938-1971, to prevent miscarriage and ensure a healthy pregnancy. It didn't work, and in many cases it caused health problems for both DES mothers (increased risk for breast cancer) and their children (increased risk for cancer, infertility, ectopic pregnancy, miscarriage, reproductive ailments).
But talk about the power of advertising: Take a look at the 1957 medical journal ad (aimed at doctors, not consumers) for DES on the group's home page - http://www.desaction.org/index.html .
There a beautiful baby looks out from an ad for a DES product that's supposed "to prevent abortion, miscarriage and premature labor." The drug is "recommended for routine prophylaxis in ALL pregnancies" and is even responsible for "bigger and stronger babies, too."
Doctors believed the ad and prescribed the drug, and as a result, 5 million DES mothers are out there, many of whom don't know that the health problems they or their children are suffering may be a result of DES.
It's not known what the long-term effects of DES may be, or if damage is genetic and could continue through the third generation.
But the experience of DES stands as "a potent and living reminder of the harmful consequences of inadequate drug promotion and distribution," says the DES Action newsletter, Voice.
That reminder is pretty chilling in light of the current DTC explosion:
"We at DES Action can only imagine what might have occurred had DES been advertised directly to consumers," the Voice states. "There could be 50 million DES mothers rather than the 5 million we have today."
That's a horrible possibility, and yet the old let's-trust-the-government reflex kicks in.
"But Pat," I say, "surely the FDA has stricter guidelines about drugs today than existed in the 1950s. Isn't the problem with direct-to-consumer ads the idea that people will buy too many pills? It's not that the pills themselves are no good."
Pat Cody has a charming laugh and out it bursts, followed by a long explanation - not to call it a tirade - about the fact that FDA does not run tests itself and that it relies on on pharmaceutical companies' own tests to prove each drug's safety.
Seen through her lens, all drugs are suspect, especially those advertised in the direct-to-consumer gold rush on TV and in print.
An example is the direct-to-consumer advertising of the cancer drug tamoxifen for HEALTHY women who are considered to be at high risk for developing breast cancer.
Testifying at an FDA hearing to examine the impact of direct-to-consumer drug ads, Deborah Hochanadel of the Massachusetts Breast Cancer Coalition read a statement on behalf of a collaboration of consumer groups (DES Action is one) that singled out tamoxifen ads.
The collaboration complained to the FDA on three occasions about tamoxifen ads from the drug's manufacturer, AstraZeneca, she explained, but the FDA "said it lacked authority to respond." After two other complaints reached the FDA, something was done and "the ads were found to overstate the benefits of tamoxifen and to understate the risks."
Even then it took a year for the FDA to take "corrective action" on the AstraZeneca ad. By that time doctors got into the act. (One doctor wanted to prescribe tamoxifen to a healthy woman whose mother and aunt had breast cancer following menopause. The doctor assumed the patient had some conversance with the drug from direct-to-consumer ads and talked about tamoxifen as a familiar preventative cure.)
So not only were "millions of women exposed to misleading advertising," when the ads first appeared, the credibility of the ads increased the longer they ran, and even more millions were affected.
That's the DES lesson of 50 years ago. Our society lives and breathes advertisements - we're surrounded by them from birth; we make a cult of them in Vanity Fair and the New Yorker.
And now with electronic cookies invading personal computers, the ads appearing on our screens become more personal and invasive the longer we stay on the Internet.
The power of language is so profound that it doesn't matter what's being advertised - a Dior purse, an antidepressant or a dangerous cancer drug all sound light, happy and safe in the easy, vegetative state TV promotes.
But thanks to consumer groups standing up to the FDA, some kind of vigilance is building up.
I only wish somebody would take a look at these radio ads for Viagra. They actually promise (this is paraphrased), "Fast, simple service! Doctors are standing by to expedite your order!"
Well, if that's true, aren't these doctors great today? They got knocked for a loop by managed care so they're selling Viagra off the back of a truck. And you thought prescription drugs were regulated.
NOTE TO READERS
Thanks to the many readers who have sent in with suggestions for developing a list of online independent booksellers. See Tuesday's column for the results.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
In the last column, you wrote:
"I can't wait to see what children's book author Josepha Sherman is going to say about Jeff Bezos in her upcoming book, 'Jeff Bezos: King of Amazon.Com.'
"The subtitle gives us a clue, as do the author's previous books, 'Bill Gates: Computer King' and 'Xena: All I Need to Know I Learned from the Warrior Princess.' "
I yield to few in my contempt for Bezos (I would say 'hatred'; but Bill Gates is still alive, and must take priority). Nonetheless I'm appalled to see that an excellent fantasy novelist and folklorist like Ms. Sherman is being dismissed as a "children's book author," and further disdained because of some of her other works.
Like many another excellent novelist (Joan Vinge, Vonda McIntyre, Barbara Hambly and Suzette Haden Elgin come immediately to mind), Josepha is doing whatever she needs to do to keep alive. For many science fiction and fantasy authors, this includes doing novelizations and adaptation of media-related material. That does not invalidate the writing, or the judgement, of said writers.
Michael J. Lowrey, Editor-in-Chief
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Just this morning I was thinking about Anna Deavere Smith [see #219] (she is also appearing on "The West Wing" TV series, by the way) in the context of an ongoing debate over the singer Eminem that's going on in the Women's Studies List Serve - that what people like my young niece are, I suspect, hearing in his lyrics, besides a great opportunity to make her parents crazy, is the "giving voice" that Anna Deavere Smith clearly does so brilliantly to people who are willing to say out loud what we know is out there and really don't want to hear. Mirrors we don't want to look in. Thoughts about how the artist, especially the young and unhinged, go straight, like a heat-seeking missile, for the most problematic, unresolved areas in consciousness -- racism, sexism, homophobia, classism. How I'd give my right arm to see her perform, and my left arm NOT to have to hear him....
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Not being a lawyer - nor have I ever played on tv or stage - I was wondering about Neal Coonerty's letter as published in the 2/12/01 Bookselling This Week. He writes:
"Currently, Internet-based merchants are not required to collect sales and use taxes . . ."
My understanding - and I could very well be wrong - is that "use taxes" are an obligation of the *purchaser* to render unto their state government the appropriate tax. Ah, the "use tax," creating a whole new criminal class!
Dear Holt Uncensored:
In response to your article on print-on-demand (POD) books:
In June 2000, Hollyridge Press released its first two books -- "Hunger and Other Stories" by Ian Randall Wilson and "The Final Audit" by Ronald Alexander -- using print on demand with Lightning Source as the printer.
We went with POD because we believed it offered us the promise of keeping the books always in print and available fast without the upfront cost of printing, the costs of warehousing and fulfillment, and the tax liability for maintaining inventory into another year -- even though the cost of printing per unit is much higher than with traditional offset.
Quite some time ago, we read your article about POD and wanted to report some of our experiences to you.
Our feeling is that POD still has a way to go before finding acceptance in the market. While Borders Stores took our books like any other publisher's, Barnes & Noble did not, using POD as one of the reasons to decline to carry. Many of the independent bookstores don't quite know how to handle POD either despite an intense campaign by Lightning to educate them. We've also sent emails out to several hundred stores with ordering instructions. The books are not always available as quickly as they're supposed to be, and sometimes the bindery is off, so appearance suffers. We're making design modifications on the covers to fix this. The positive side of POD is Amazon.com and the on-line outlets: The books sell seamlessly there.
In spite of a slightly rocky start, Hollyridge is going to shoulder on. We got into publishing from a love of literature and the firm idea that it doesn't have to be a large New York house deciding what gets published. It doesn't have to be some marketing person's idea of what will sell in the market. Good books should be what matters.
In October 2001 Hollyridge will release its first two hardcover books: "Jack Kerouac's Avatar Angel: His Last Novel" by Chuck Rosenthal and "The Love-Talkers: An Erotic Fable" by Gail Wronsky. In addition, Hollyridge is launching an annual poetry journal called "88" around the same time. We're also at work assembling a bigger list for 2002 with emphasis on bringing back into print out-of-print books from so-called "mid-list" authors (though we hate the term) who frankly have been cast off.
Like any small press, trying to attract attention ourselves and our books is a major task. There's so much clutter out there that trying to rise into view is difficult.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
You wrote in the last column:
"Do you know what we call something we don't understand? he asks the crowd. A Miracle. Once we figure it out, do you know what we call it then? Science."
This is an instance of Clarke's Law, Arthur Charles Clarke of science fiction fame. Any technology sufficiently advanced above the one we understand is tantamount to magic. I am sure I managed to slaughter and mangle the actual elegant phrasing by Clarke, but I believe I have the concept well in hand.
Holt Uncensored provides this forum for the free and uncensored exchange of thoughts and ideas from writers of all callings. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of Pat Holt or the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association.
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