Cannes 07

A Letter From the Editor

By Published on .

If it's unwise to disagree with gurus, it's surely twice as foolish to disagree with two at the same time. So pass the jester's cap, already: I take issue with both Bill Bernbach and with the man entrusted to carry on his tradition, DDB Worldwide chairman Keith Reinhard.

Don't get me wrong. Like any fan of creativity in advertising, I carry a little locket with Bernbach's picture (I bet you're clutching yours right now). And I like Keith plenty. One reason is that he's genuinely interested in what's going on in the culture. I remember that a few years ago, he asked me what kind of music I'd been listening to of late, and he dutifully wrote down the answers - Beck, Los Lobos, Colombian rockers Blocque - in an earnest effort to keep current. For all I know, he was groovin' to some Latin hardcore beats that same night. Not bad for a guy in his 60s.

Anyway, in a speech at last month's Four A's conference, Keith talked about good taste in ads. Or rather, the presumed lack thereof. (At one point, he chastised Creativity for allegedly focusing on "the underside of advertising.") And he quoted Bernbach: "All of us who professionally use the mass media are the shapers of society. We can vulgarize society. We can brutalize it. Or we can help lift it onto a higher level."

The implication (and Keith's stated belief) is that admakers must help elevate the masses. You hear that, people? No more genitalia jokes! More Monet! Or whatever else is considered good taste.

One of my many character flaws is that I'm not easily impressed when someone tells me what constitutes good taste. Good taste and good looks, I think, have this in common: hundreds of millions of mildly conceited people think they possess it, and the rest of us are too kind to set them straight.

I honestly don't profess to know what is genuinely tasteful. Keith shouldn't either. One of the few examples he gave of what's "over the line" was last year's Benetton "Death Row" print campaign (see Creativity, February 2000). True, those ads made me squirm a bit - and consequently, they also made me think. That was precisely what Benetton's Oliviero Toscani had in mind. Controversial? Most certainly. Over the line? Not in my book.

Keith also singled out the Talens rubber cement spot. It's the one with the nun who notices that a stone cherub in her convent has lost its little, um, appendage. So she uses Talens glue to stick it back on, at a different angle - causing hilarity among the other nuns, who snigger mightily (as do most viewers) over the little guy's sudden, tiny erection. Keith held that commercial up as a bad example, right? Guess again. He praised it. He thinks it's a spot that was done in excellent taste. I concur, but I'll bet him all the coins on next Sunday's collection plate that there are a couple of million Catholics who felt it was well over the line. Their line. So again, what is good taste? Depends on whom you ask. And if you ask a hundred people, you're likely to get a hundred opinions. No offense, but Keith's taste - that of a 65-year-old multimillionaire from a Mennonite nest - is probably not the ultimate yardstick if you're trying to sell soda pop to 16-year-olds in the South Bronx.

Which leads me to an even more fundamental problem with Bernbach's (and Reinhard's) exhortation to creatives to clean up advertising. Advertisers don't pay their agencies a fortune to bathe the great unwashed in a scented pool of knowledge and high culture. Last time I checked, they seemed rather keen on selling lots of Doritos instead. You want to "lift society onto a higher level"? Go work for PBS. On Madison Avenue, you're paid (very well, I might add) to move product.

Advertising is a mirror. In a culture where extreme snarkiness, even crudeness, has become a dominant tone (Eminem, Maxim, Tom Green, the Farrelly Brothers), it's no surprise that admakers listen, and reflect what they hear. Like it or not, they wouldn't be doing their jobs if they didn't.

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