By Published on .

If Newton Minow was right about television's "vast wasteland"-and he was-whatever are we to conclude about commercials which, like so many sun-bleached cattle skulls, for a half century have littered its desolate horizon.

The relentless petulance of Ted Bates & Co.'s Anacin commercials, the grotesque sexism of the defunct National Airlines' "Fly me," the carcinogenic cunning of the Marlboro cowboy, the trick-little-kids dishonesty of Hot Wheels. Grim remnants, one and all.

Then there's the naked elitism of Lincoln Town Car, the callous racism of the Frito Bandito, the prey-on-suckers sleazism of the Psychic Friends Network and the perverted grocery squeezism of Mr. Whipple.

We can never forget how they treated us. Nor can we forget the sordid history of shameless appeals to our vanity, materialism, erotic baseness and shallow obsession with status, to say nothing of incessant tugs at our neurotic insecurities about such planetary scourges as halitosis, dishwasher spots and static cling.

Nor can we truly rid our memories, God help us all, of Madge.

We're not merely exposed to TV advertising; we're soaking in it. Factor in the dubious-or, at least, unquantifiable-effectiveness of the entire discipline and its overarching incitement to mindless consumption and one can easily see how the entire past 50 years can be written off as a sorry indictment of capitalist excess, a toxic byproduct of the information age.

"You realize," says the Canadian magazine Adbusters, "that all the hoopla obscures one very dirty little fact about our consumer culture: It thrives on the death of nature, and charges the cost to future generations."

To critics such as these, advertising must be understood in ultra-macroeconomic terms, wherein every transaction is judged not by its contribution to the gross domestic product but by its ultimate cost to the environment.

In short, we are to suppose, the first five decades of TV have been the moral equivalent of napalm, and Tony the Tiger is an enemy of the people. That's a sobering condemnation of an industry and a way of life.

It is also ludicrous.

TV advertising is many things; unadulterated evil is not one of them. From the singing Texaco men on, TV spots have benefited society in several ways. There is ample reason not merely to abide the accumulation of Madison Avenue's output, but to treasure it.

Let us begin with one benefit wholly unintended by anyone involved: anthropology. What better archive is there, for the social and cultural history of our age, than the aggregation of a half-century's commercials?

"These humbler adjuncts to literature may prove more valuable to the future historian than the editorial contents," wrote early adman Earnest Elmo Calkins, as quoted by Martin Mayer in "Whatever Happened to Madison Avenue?" "In them we may trace our sociological history, the rise and fall of fads and crazes, changing interests and changing tastes, in food and clothes, amusements and vices, a panorama of life as it was lived, more informing than old diaries and crumbling tombstones."

If TV advertising is nothing else, it has value as the Rosetta Stone of the consumer society.

To trace the evolution of women in American life, for instance, an anthropologist could find no better source than a year-by-year compendium of laundry soap and packaged foods commercials.

The service of scholarship, obviously, is a subsidiary benefit. Let us not neglect TV advertising's principal one: the small detail that it has helped move trillions of dollars in merchandise.

What Michael Jordan did for Nike, what "Mo-naaaa" did for Gillette Right Guard and, alas, what Mr. Whipple did for Charmin is incalculable-which is to say, both enormous and impossible to quantify.

Indeed, the very incalculability that certifies commercials' vast achievements also seems to provoke the industry's critics, who stake out positions on opposite poles of the continuum of contempt.

To those who see hidden psychological persuaders lurking behind every frame of film and who believe George Lois' fatuous boast that advertising is "poison gas," achievements in selling are by no means a badge of honor. They see TV commercials as casting a sort of Svengali spell, mesmerizing us into obediently buying all manner of goods and services we neither want nor need.

This belief is the province of many a paranoiac crackpot-the sort who imagine pictures of genitalia embedded inside ice cubes-but also some canny and trenchant observers of the advertising scene. One such is Leslie Savan, ad critic for the Village Voice, who sees her role as informing readers what is behind TV commercials, so they can be better prepared to repel the spots' sinister powers.

To Ms. Savan, commercials not only manipulate us, but also compromise our humanity. In her collection "The Sponsored Life," she cites William James' wistful contemplation of "liberation from material attachments, the unbribed soul" as her point of departure for an exploration of the knack of TV commercials for both perpetuating and validating unrealistic notions of human fulfillment, their exhortation to derive meaning from things instead of from ideas. The disturbing consequence is what she calls a "uniquely American form of spiritual graft."

The assumption is any deviation from ascetic devotion to the inner life is a spiritual compromise, that any material indulgence is essentially corrupt, that central heating is bribery of the soul and a microwave oven is naked hedonism.

Now, Ms. Savan is no Buddhist monk, and she is no crackpot, and she obviously does not prescribe a merchandise-free society. So she would have to agree that to appreciate certain material things is not necessarily to worship them. Consumption, tubercular imagery notwithstanding, is not in

If TV advertising is nothing else, it has value and of itself a disease of the soul. Nor is the advertising that seeks to stimulate it-at least, now that Crazy Eddie is off the air.

The flip side of the 30-second-Svengali is the equally skeptical, equally extreme argument that tens of thousands of TV commercials, year in and year out-even those campaigns venerated in the industry for their overpowering success-haven't worked at all.

That view is proffered in Randall Rothenberg's book, "Where the Suckers Moon," which takes delight in attributing the sales-explosion phenomena of Nike and Volkswagen, for example, to overall economic conditions and societal trends-as opposed to Wieden & Kennedy's and Doyle Dane Bernbach's brilliant, classic advertising.

But, of course, the proof of TV-ad efficacy has long since been established by the fact that, when the commercials go off the air, sales always go down. Period. That the exact mechanism is maddeningly elusive is not to say the results are in question.

Whether there is more credence to Rosser Reeves' Unique Selling Proposition or David Ogilvy's brand personality or Bill Bernbach's brand image isn't the point. The point is that TV commercials confer an aura of substance and dependability on national brands, and therefore provide some of the value we demand from the brands we trust.

That's the minimum effect of the commercials. When everything is going just right-"Where's the beef?" for instance-the brand can transcend the marketing nuts and bolts of its category and vault headlong into the national psyche.

In the ordinary course of events, the effect of TV commercials falls smack between Vance Packard's "The Hidden Persuaders" and Mr. Rothenberg's scenario of impotence; they influence our buying decisions, but in no way dictate them. For every "Where's the beef?" deployment of poison gas there is a benign bicarbonate like Alka-Seltzer, which provided campaign after delightful, memorable, hilarious campaign and lost market share the entire way.

Still in all, as Martin Mayer put it, "What advertising does reverberates beyond the statistics."

In that sense, Mr. Minow had it exactly right, but Marshall McLuhan had it slightly wrong. The medium isn't the message. The medium is brought to you by the message.

Maybe at some rarefied, solipsistic, theoretical level the meaning of the TV signal derives from the very existence of the TV signal. But the real impact of TV is in the particulars.

Uncle Miltie. The Army-McCarthy hearings. The Cuban missile crisis. "Laugh-In." The Tet Offensive. Archie Bunker. The moon landing. The fall of the Berlin Wall. Each in its way was a watershed, each leaving an indelible imprint on society. And each paid for, directly or otherwise, by the sponsor.

Whatever else can be debated about the legacy of 50 years of TV advertising, this is undeniable: it underwrote the revolution.

Fire. The wheel. Agriculture. The printing press. The steam engine. Antibiotics. After the integrated circuit, TV is on the short list of innovations that changed human kind, and this one was on Madge's dime. Indeed, one can posit a powerful argument that the TV signal-and both the programming and advertising it carried-changed the world in a quite specific way by substantially undermining the Communist bloc.

The Iron Curtain could keep people in, but it couldn't keep news of the consumer society out. When, through broadcast and video, people in the East realized what was being advertised and purchased in the West, the fraud of Marxist rhetoric was at last all too evident. Without ignoring the impact of President Reagan's "Star Wars" bankrupting the command economy, and the ultimate moral bankruptcy of communism itself, it's reasonable to view the collapse of the Soviet empire on simple neighborhood dynamics of the global village.

Then, of course, there are the commercials themselves. The history of TV advertising is by no means merely a half-century of ugly wax build-up. Madge notwithstanding, it's not just a rogues' gallery of irritants; it's also a pantheon of triumphs.

What word better applies to "1984," the 60-second masterpiece that launched the Apple Macintosh on Super Bowl Sunday 11 years ago?

Directed by Ridley Scott, it depicted an Orwellian nightmare of a bellicose tyrant ranting via telescreen to an audience of devolved, skinheaded drones. The message was that a dictatorial, information-dominating force could enslave us-and the inescapable implication was that IBM and Big Brother were one and the same.

Thus could the Macintosh-embodied by a lithe female athlete who smashes the telescreen with a well-flung hammer-be portrayed as a tool of liberation for the heroically independent thinker, a defensive weapon against mind control.

ranted, not everybody got it. But everybody felt it, and Macintosh went on to revolutionize personal computing. The commercial was probably the greatest ever filmed.

Perhaps, though, not the greatest spot. TV's commercial time-that great moral compromiser, that sinister Svengali, that destroyer of the rain forest-also has been a potent force for social welfare.

Of the many TV images burned forever into our mass consciousness, many are from public service announcements written, produced and donated for the greater good.

Among them: the crying American Indian, heartbroken over the ravaging of the environment, and "Like Father, Like Son," which depicted an adoring little boy mimicking his dad's every move. The last image is of father lighting a cigarette.

And more recently, a PSA for the New York Coalition for the Homeless that shows nothing more complicated than a montage of street people in their various wretched habitats, singing "New York, New York." But in simplicity there can be startling power. Not only did the lyrics tumble with devastating irony from the mouths of society's detritus ("I want to wake up in the city that doesn't sleep/and be king of the hill/top of the heap"), the fact that these woeful men and women knew the words and melody was tremendously affecting in itself.

After viewing this spot, it may still be possible to pity the homeless, to resent them, to be irritated by them, to fear them. But it is impossible to deny their humanity, impossible to forget they are people, people who know the words to pop tunes, just like us.

It may be the greatest TV spot ever made. On such wonders must the medium also be judged.

No, it isn't just Madge and Whipple that TV advertising has wrought. It is George Raft leading a prison-dinner disturbance, a young groom trying to digest the idea of poached oysters or "Atsa some spicy meatball!" for Alka-Seltzer. It's Joe Isuzu and "Joey called" just to say I love you. It's "I'd like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony"; the Pepsi generation; and "wouldn't you like to be a Pepper, too?" It's the 7UP "uncola nut" and the fast-talking man for Federal Express. It's Mean Joe Greene with a smile and a jersey for a little kid, and Brooke Shields declaring nothing comes between her and her Calvins. It's Bill Demby joining a pickup game of hoops, prosthetic legs or no, and it's a lonesome snowplow driver driving to work in a Volkswagen Beetle. It's Arthur Godfrey babbling on, with his unique combination of sincerity and irreverence, looking for the chicken in the Lipton chicken-noodle soup. Yes, indeed. It's where's the chicken and it's "Where's the beef?"

Vast though the wasteland may be, the way to understand and benefit from it is not to survey its emptiness. The trick is to mine its precious, sometimes hidden treasures. To say only that commercials have informed our language, our culture, our economy and our democracy is to circle the periphery. The central truth is something greater.

In the end, we must acknowledge that a half-century of TV advertising is one of the things that makes us us.

Most Popular
In this article: