Negativland, those aural-collage funsters best known for raising the ire of Island Records' lawyers over a U2 song parody, are back with a new anti-advertising CD, Dispepsi. At first glance, it promises to be a wickedly fizzy assault, since the indie album is not actually called Dispepsi-the group was advised that this was dangerously actionable. It's called Ispidpes, or some variation thereof, and if you want to be officially informed of the real title, you can call Bay Area-based Negativland for a recorded announcement.
Curiously, the CD is far from scathing. Yes, a bit of fun is had at the expense of celebrity endorsers, cretinously happy jingles and moronic taste tests, and there are some more general attacks on advertising as mind control, but it all seems rather tame. Dyspeptic, in fact. Not bilious.
Don Joyce, 53, one of Negativland's core members, can explain. "We don't want to tackle social issues in a preachy or didactic way. We want to provide a lot of raw material to allow you to think for yourself. And we don't go in for a real vicious attack. Advertising is going to be there anyway. We're promoting more of a psychic self-defense against it. We're not out to bring down all advertising." (The news brought sighs of relief and extravagantly catered office parties up and down Madison Avenue.)
"I don't know what the alternative [to advertising] would be," Joyce elaborates. "It could well be something worse. But this stuff is selling discontent: If you buy this product, it will solve your problem. This is a basic fallacy that America has been indoctrinated by for 50 years through mass media, and this has an effect on the national psychological state of a country."
But why Pepsi? Compared to the swoosh virus, for instance, Pepsi is a mild case of the sniffles. As the anti-advertising project evolved, "we noticed we had a whole lot of material collected on Pepsi, and a crucial consideration is what you have at hand," says Joyce, who remarkably doesn't know BBDO from B.B. King. "So after we did a few pieces on Pepsi, we saw it as a way to put a more specific, easily identifiable handle on advertising, which is so large and so vague a subject.
"And I like the idea that Pepsi is such a trivial product, even more so than Nike, and they spend so much money selling it around the world," adds Joyce. "It's so relentlessly Pepsi all the way through that it effectively simulates the kind of saturation advertising that Pepsi and all these multinationals do all over the world."
Oddly, Wieden & Kennedy propositioned Negativland on behalf of Miller Genuine Draft, well before this CD was released: "They said, 'Hey, you don't know us, but everyone up here is big fans of your stuff-we wondered if you'd be interested in doing something for us,' " Joyce recalls with some amusement. "I was surprised to get the call. We've been making fun of advertising on our records for a long time. I asked them what they thought we'd be doing, and they didn't have a clear idea. I'm still not sure whether they wanted raw material from us that they'd fool with themselves, or if they wanted us to make some kind of commercial, but of course it was out of the question. It would totally ruin our image of being independent critics of this sort of thing." (BBDO and W&K did not return calls seeking comment.)
Negativland has gotten some competition in the ad-bashing game from-surprise-the business itself. "The hipper end of advertising is now being negative about advertising," Joyce says, slightly miffed. "The Sprite 'Obey Your Thirst' campaign is the most obvious example. It's extremely disconcerting to someone who's interested in satirizing this stuff."
In fact, it's not Pepsi but Sprite's fictitious Jooky Cola that really gets Joyce's dander up. "When I hit the end of that [Jooky Cola spot] and saw that I had been fooled, I was offended," he recalls. "I was annoyed. For what purpose? I don't really understand. I think it is very effectively deceptive. They've co-opted the criticism of advertising and incorporated it into their ads. This is what amazes me about advertising, and that's why I have a love/hate relationship with it. They really stay ahead of the game. They're almost immune to criticism because they're so quick to hop on whatever the trend is."
An interesting viewpoint, since the world of advertising is more frequently criticized for being at least two years behind a trend. But maybe Dispepsi's slack attack is trendy enough to be a hit with young record buyers, even though you can't dance to it. The disc has been well-received by the music press, garnering good reviews in Spin and Rolling Stone.
Meanwhile, Joyce, for all his anti-consumerist invective, sometimes sounds more like a member of Positivland. "I think commercials are among the most interesting things on TV," he acknowledges. "They're the most advanced technically and creatively. They're far more advanced than the programming-all these stupid formularistic sitcoms that are absolutely mind-numbing."