Forall its presumed power to shape attitudes, sell political candidates and persuade us to buy a particular brand of widget, advertising has received very little serious scrutiny from television journalists. TV's track record remains intact with "Sex, Buys & Advertising," Deborah Norville's dog-days-of-summer documentary about the ad industry, airing tonight on NBC (Channel 4 at 10).
First, a little truth in advertising is in order. Despite the belabored pun on the title of a recent film, "Sex, Buys & Advertising" has almost nothing to say about sex in advertising. Such an intriguing subject as how advertising distorts and exploits sexual imagery -- particularly that involving women -- doesn't even rate the obligatory shots of scantily clad models in car ads.
Instead, this is another production from the "Entertainment Tonight" school of documentary making. Under the guise of examining the advertising industry (actually, the television advertising industry), the one-hour special spends a good deal of time oohing and aahing over its glamour. It's all surfaces and momentarily interesting images -- Michael J. Fox makes a Pepsi commercial! Bo Jackson knows Nike! Michael Jackson makes a Pepsi commercial! At that, it's sort of like TV advertising itself, except without the coherence and cheap emotional potency of a good 30-second ad.
Norville is at best gratuitous, at worst embarrassingly banal. Emotion, she reports, is an effective way to grab the consumer's attention. Advertisers do psychological studies to understand consumer behavior. Cosmetics manufacturer Estee Lauder is paying $6 million to model Paulina Porizkova in the hope that her glamour will rub off on its products. Kind of tears the cover off the subject, doesn't it?
In the documentary's longest segment, the producers follow a New York ad agency, Kirshenbaum & Bond, as it competes for the Carvel ice cream account. The agency is shown preparing its materials, making its pitch to the client, and ultimately losing the business to another agency. It's not clear from this what we're supposed to learn about advertising, except maybe that a lot of people in the business have odd haircuts. What's more, you already know about this stuff from watching Darrin Stephens toil for McMann & Tate on "Bewitched."
The second half of "Sex ... etc." consists of snippets on just about every advertising controversy to surface during the past five years. Most of it rushes by in a blur: product placements in movies, Whittle Communication's Channel One school video network, "infomercials," environmental marketing, marketing to children.
The Headline News style is at its lamest when the program spends exactly 43 seconds on "target marketing" of cigarettes and alcoholic beverages, a subject worthy of its own documentary. Wrapping it up, Norville intones, "The debate will go on ... but targeting is here to stay" (later she observes, "... advertising is here to stay"). And then we're off to a discussion of spring break for a segment on selling to college students.
For all its glibness, "Sex, Buys & Advertising" might have been something. The issues it brushes past are real and important. Producers Paul W. Greenberg and Rhonda Schwartz have even picked the right talking heads, such as psychologist Carol Moog, the academic Mark Crispin Miller and critic Bob Garfield of Advertising Age, who actually have something interesting to say about advertising and society. If only the program had an attention span longer than the average Budweiser commercial... .