"IT'S REAL. I know it's real. No other reason for the way I feel. Oh yeah, it's as real as it gets."
-- Ad for Miller Genuine Draft Beer.
THE HOT NEW concept in advertising this year is cold, hard reality. Beef was reborn in ads several months ago as "real food for real people." Winston cigarettes are now sold (in ads featuring artificially-hearty, non-smoking L.L. Beanoids) with the line, "Real friends. Real people want real taste." And John Hancock's ads offer "Real Life/Real Answers," against close-up shots of anguished people talking about their salaries.
"Reality in advertising" is a contradiction in terms, of course, since it all depends upon how you like your reality -- slightly manufactured or entirely so. But the new wave in adverstising certainly looks "real" -- jumpy, grainy, super-8 footage, shot from hand-held cameras. It spurns the obvious artifice of kitschy TV-game-show technicolor in favor of the more subtle, double artifice of a home-movie look and bleached out color.
"It's a way of attempting to say that all those glossy issues were yesterday," says Barry Day, vice chairman of the McCann-Erickson Worldwide advertising agency, of the new ads. "It's simply life catching up with reality, expressing an incipient mood in the country long before Black Monday. Now it's not country sunshine, but the neon jungle and pick-up basketball games in wire compounds."
The "new realism" in advertising may be an early sign of a broader political and social trend that's underway in America. The hot political messages so far this year seem to be those of Dick Gephardt and Pat Robertson, who argue (in very different ways) that beneath the slick veneer of Ronald Reagan's America is a country in serious trouble. The suprise bestseller of the year is Paul Kennedy's study of America as an empire in decline. For Americans at the Calgary Olympics, it's been the Year of the Losers. This is a time, in short, for looking at the downside of things.
Howard Guard, a British film and commercial director, offers a theory of why "realism" has caught on here in the past year. There's been a "growing middle class affluence on both side of the Atlantic for the last four or five years. But at the same time, the divide between the rich and poor is even greater. I think there's a subconscious understanding that this world can't be flaunted too much."
A new series of ads for AT&T Business Systems may be the most powerful statement of the new ethos. In a medium usually dedicated to an insane, buy-buy-buy positivism, the AT&T ads speak to a growing sense of economic and cultural dislocation, an awareness that the "system" is not holding. It's no longer morning in America; in the new AT&T ads, it looks more like dusk.
In the first set of spots, trauma-numbed people are telling bitter tales of how bad phones have ruined their business lives. A sad man tells of inheriting his father's tailoring business, and, in his first move, "blowing" everything by changing the phone system. A receptionist, clinking her tea cup in Ernestine-like fashion, talks through flared nostrils -- with palpable rage -- about the dumb phone system nobody can operate.
More dramatic than their testimony, however, is the camera technique in the ads: It's a sort of video verite in which the camera jerks, jumps, and sputters around the room.
The jerky work of the camera-jockey does not appeal to Jerry Della Femina, chairman of Della Femina, Travisano & Partners. "I call it reality for schizophrenics -- a temporary boon for camera operators who can't keep their hands steady," he says.
Leslie Dektor, who directed the spots, pioneered the new visual style in his commericals for Levi's 501 jeans. Those spots captured urban non-actor types (including then-unknown Bruce Willis) in supersaturated light, doing little nervous, unscripted things.
Dektor calls what he's doing "in the style of Soviet cinema -- where the dialogue comes in a little late, and they move the camera late. Or like Soviet photojournalism, with someone's foot bleeding off the page. I like a feeling of upset or awkwardness in the composition."
He says that in the AT&T spots, he wanted to give the idea that "these people are allowing me in for a few minutes and I don't have time to set up or pamper the image."
The next generation of spots for AT&T Business Systems, now airing, reject the jerky camera in favor of the more familiar swoop, or pan. They're directed by John Nathan, who shot the TV documentary version of "In Search of Excellence" and "Entrepenuers."
The AT&T ads play on the theme of "Execu-stress," a vein of '80s anxiety has been tapped by other advertisers. Apple Computers, for example, is running a series of brilliantly shot film-noir spots showing people in boardrooms, gripped in executive paranoia about why their competitors are able to do "killer forecasts" and they can't.
These new AT&T spots, however, seem to signal a new ad genre: slice-of-death. As opposed to sunny, "Honey, I'm home" domestic scenarios, slice-of-death ads are confrontational atrocities, business moments filled with reminders of incompetence and threats of getting fired. To some degree, of course, advertising has often run on anxiety. In the old days, Marge was the laughing stock of her bridge club because her house smelled like fish. But consider how much AT&T has upped the ante: Johnson has a larger problem. He's chosen the wrong $2 million phone system.
In a spot called "Executive Washroom," two men in execu-stress uniform -- for one, crisp shirt, suspenders, wire-rim glasses; for the other, tie pin and horn rims -- are washing up at brass-fitted sinks. The guy in suspenders tells his colleague that the phone system he carefully researched and bought has been rendered obsolete. The actor is terrific. Wiping his face, re-adjusting his glasses, he says to his colleague, "You don't think they're going to boot me out of here -- over a phone system?" His friend the corporate shark responds: "Don't be ridiculous. Relax, John." But we know John is a goner.
In another spot for AT&T telemarketing, a younger office associate, in true paranoid style, is actually peering out of the venetian blind of his office window at "Johnson," his competitor across the way. He's pleased that the lights are out. But his older, more knowing colleague thinks it proves that Johnson's doing it better; the reason Johnson isn't in his office at 8 o'clock at night worrying about billing because he's "got a system."
Even the language reaks of paranoia -- that somebody else "has a system." The spots are shot in places of classic ad anxiety: bathrooms, offices and restaurants. In a spot called "Black Tie," a boss excoriates his employee during a formal banquet dinner -- right at the table, with all dates and spouses present -- because the company's phone system will have to be rebuilt from scratch.
"Brilliant, Murphy! he says, as Murphy is left with only his hangdog look.
These ads are a lot more chilling than hearing about waxy yellow buildup or visible panty lines. In fact, outdated technology is not an advertising-invented anxiety. These spots point to a profound, and painful experience that many such executives are experiencing.
Robert J. Samuelson explained in a recent Newsweek column that the mid-80s boom in the service sector is slowly collapsing. He likens it to the predicament of heavy industry in the early '80s, when many factories had to be closed or retooled. Now service businesses, to survive and stay competitive, are streamlining and restructuring -- and at the same time, figuring out how to use new and complicated information technologies. That creates a tremendous sense of insecurity and frustration, mirrored in these spots.
Does edgy, grainy grimness work? It's too early to tell for AT&T. But the ads do seem to capture a new trend in American culture. In the age of AIDS, Iran-contra, and political dwarfism, we seem to be increasingly interested in examining -- in vast, unvarnished detail -- our personal, business and legal anxieties. That's the audience for the explosion in TV talk shows, from Phil and Oprah to Geraldo and Mort.
Adverstising executives suspect that this apprehensive style will change if the economy really goes over the cliff. Sheldon Levy, executive vice president of Saatchi & Saatchi/DFS/Compton, explains: "If the economy gets worse, there will probably be an extreme swing toward trying to communicate pragmatism, or the essential simplicity of what you're trying to sell."
The new documentary-style realism sometimes has the feel of agit-prop. In a spot for Drexel Burnham that was quickly yanked off the air, cinematographer David Bailey recreated Walker Evans' famous Depression photos of the dust bowl, with hungry-looking women in housedresses tending their children. They were supposed to show the town of Vidalia, Lousiana, gripped in unemployment before junk bonds ("high-yield bonds," as Drexel Burnham calls them) paved the way for a new hydroelectric plant.
Never mind that the firm hardest hit by the insider-trading scandal on Wall Street was advertising its virtue and public spirit. That's not why the spot was taken off the air. It was because Vidalians were incensed; after all, they have Sears, and Burger King in their town and the women wear shorts and running shoes just like everybody else.
"Decline" is the issue in the new ads. Barking at each other about their failed phones in the john and at black tie dinners, these people are the rude warriors of advertising. The unrelenting grimness -- the sounds of giant metal doors slamming -- are ways of shaking our confidence. They're saying wake up and smell the decline.
The great irony of the AT&T campaign, of course, is that in ads over the years for what used to be called "Ma Bell," the imagery was so golden, so loving, so filled with the sheer joy of human contact that we could have mistaken them as spots for the Mormon church.
But we lost Ma a few years ago. And in Ronald Reagan's final months in office, we seem to be losing Pa, too. Today, AT&T ads describe a world in which people are incompetent and frightened. In the double-artifice of reality advertising, the emotions of frustration, rage and a vague sense of doom are as real as it gets. Barbara Lippert is the advertising critic for the magazine, "Adweek."