Green Lights, White Lies

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The future has always fascinated me. As a kid, I practically lived for Lost in Space and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. Later, I thrilled to the intellectual jolt of science-fiction stories. Movies like Planet of the Apes, Rollerball, and Soylent Green were more critical to my emotional development than Wordsworth or Whitman.

Well, the future is here, and it looks strangely like the present, except with longer hold times. The future is a powerful advertising theme, whether applied to sell the micro-utopia of convenience and innovation or as a dystopian counter-strategy. Apple's "1984" mixed-and-matched both tactics.

Consider the first ad for Microsoft's Ultimate TV - another digital video recorder (DVR), the media equivalent of an electronic morphine drip. The Ultimate TV spot sells the convenience of recording multiple shows at once and pausing/resuming live shows. The DVR category (which includes TiVo and Replay) promises to free viewers from the totalitarianism of broadcast schedules.

That's a lot of techno talk. Let's add "Power of Speech," a spot for Infiniti's Q45 out of TBWA/Chiat Day, in which a driver issues verbal commands to his Q45. This is real. He orders traffic lights to turn green. The appeal is obvious to anyone who feels victimized by the inanimate world. And who doesn't dream of wielding more power over our recalcitrant toasters and cordless phones?

This is technophilia, and maybe futurephilia, and it falls squarely into the little-white-lie advertising mainstream. Much of advertising tries to leverage a grandiose product benefit off of a modest product reality, like sexual promiscuity from beer, or domestic bliss from fast food. We prefer white lies over the truth of alcoholism and heart disease.

The DVR spot I can live with. Teaching my DVR to search for any movie with Albert Brooks is a wonderful antidote to the impenetrable logic of VCRs, although a DVR will not stop me from watching Law & Order at 10 p.m. sharp every Wednesday. I crave the order of it. I like being part of an audience, albeit invisibly.

But the Infiniti spot is the antithesis of community. Tom Wolfe misjudged it: the Me Decade has only just begun. If you dangle the promise of running the traffic grid, you play to my bitter personal sense of frustration (traffic sucks) and entitlement (nobody understands how valuable my time is!). If I ran the traffic lights, the world would end up like the Twilight Zone episode "It's A Good Life," in which Billy Mumy controls the world with his mind and, naturally, destroys everything.

The green-light fantasy is dangerous. Our epidemic of road rage is getting worse, not better. We drive to the supermarket honking, screaming, and cursing. We don't need to boss around our convection ovens or digital thermostats to be free. We need more cooperation, more civility, more long-term planning. The Robinson family in Lost in Space made it look so easy. They tooled around the sky using personal jetpacks, an actual if ill-fated invention of Wendell Moore, a Bell Aerospace engineer. Such fantasies seem ridiculous now, and Madison Avenue knows it. Cliff Freeman satirized the jetpack in a commercial last year for, of all things, a rental car (a Budget customer is equipped with a jetpack to get him to his wheels faster; he gets electrocuted in some high-tension wires). Jetpacks couldn't ease our traffic problems. Nothing could.

Ironically, Hollywood's dream factory sells the bleakest view of the future. From Bladerunner to Mad Max, from Terminator to Waterworld, apocalypse is the reigning trope. Madison Avenue, on the other hand, believes in a bright, neon, Jetsonized future, a future full of expensive and life-enhancing toys.

But jetpacks and interactive traffic lights are a distraction. The only gadget to make my life easier is EZ-Pass, the automatic toll-paying device. EZ-Pass has no ad budget, no tagline, no spokesperson, no Tarsem or Spike Jonze. It's mundane as hell. But it works. That's the real future, although it doesn't work as a movie, a TV commercial, or a plastic action figure.

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