Momus | Essays

The Strange Commercial

Eventually all advertising will seem strange. Brad Stockshot and Cindy Clipart, modelling chunky knitwear on the beach, will look like absurd freaks. The 2005 Audi A6, as sleek as an arrowhead up on that billboard, will seem as archaic as a crossbow. When the endless repetition of these images stops, when the things they're referencing are forgotten and arcane, their power to define what's normal will stop too, replaced by an intriguing quirkiness. As they slip further away from their original purpose, the distinction between these commercial images and art will start to decompose. They'll hang in museums alongside art. Their power to evoke a lost Pompeii will be just as great, sometimes greater. And they'll seem as strange as art, sometimes stranger.

Some commercials rot slowly into strangeness, others seem born with their strangeness fully-grown. I've recently been intrigued by two sets of commercials archived on the web, one from late 1960s Germany, the other from early 1980s Japan.

Afri-Cola is a German cola with a caffeine content to rival Jolt and Red Bull's. As the third cola on the German market, Afri has often played the wild card in its branding strategy. Calculated strangeness is a familiar advertising ploy; if number one is "the real thing", and number two "tries harder", it falls to number three to be exotic, weird, arty and misunderstood. With everything to gain and little to lose, Afri-Cola took risks.

Early campaigns emphasized the product's high caffeine content, but in Charles Wilp's 1968 Nonnen ("Nuns") spot drugs of quite a different kind seem to be involved. Accompanied by a bold soundtrack of disorienting contemporary classical music (scary sliding violins and atonal Henze-like piano chords) the visuals, shot through a melting sheet of icy glass, evoke the decadent filmed parties of Andy Warhol, Jack Smith and Shuji Terayama, with lascivious nuns instead of drag superstars. The voiceover to this "Charles Wilp film" (the prominent caption makes clear its auteurist pretensions) evokes some kinky, prurient documentary about a wicked yet attractive underground scene. Here are "stimulants, sexy cola sounds" and everything you need for an orgiastic "alcohol-free party". The Pepsi-trumping voice-over slogan, apparently phoned in by Nico, is "sexy mini super flower pop op cola".

If you think that's over the top, just wait. In 1972, four years after his "Nonnen" spot, Wilp unveiled Alpha 01. The same spaced-out party chicks are shot through the same frosted glass to the same music, this time kitted out with alpha wave-detecting headphones. Buschbaby (also 1972), accompanied by a melody cunningly evoking the line "I'm black, I'm black, my friends are white" from the musical Hair, works a funky negritude theme, with afro-haired Marsha Hunt doing a curvy dance behind the curvy bottles. Those other colas may look brown, but they're pretty white inside, you dig?

1973's Lust, again by Wilp, adds a painful jarring shriek to the freaky Henze music. Male nudity and references to cult musical Cabaret and in-flight porn film Coffee, Tea Or Me mix with slogans from gay lib and girl power to make what must be the closest thing in advertising history to a full-blown endorsement of pre-brimstone Sodom. As with the late cinema of Pasolini, it's hard to know where provocation ends and camp self-parody begins. We seem to witness 1960s counterculture reaching its zenith, nadir and terminus: an identity politics pantomime.

Time and repetition change things in complex ways; they can make something strange seem normal, then strange again. Every schoolkid knows that an ordinary word repeated quickly becomes intensely odd. Erik Satie repeated a short piano piece 840 times and entitled it Vexations. John Cage said: "If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all." (It's fun to replace the word "boring" in that sentence with the word "commercial".)

Starting in 1980, French parfumeur and aesthete Serge Lutens art directed a series of promotional films for Japanese cosmetics giant Shiseido. These refined, mannered commercials must have seemed strange at the time; they're even stranger now. What fascinates me, in films like Baroque and Poesie and Matsuri, is how completely the funky libido of the 1970s has been vanquished. We seem to have travelled back from the Revolution to the Ancien Regime; all is calm, controlled, classical, alabaster white. A glacial frigidity has taken the place of the wild party. Statuesque mannequins in thick Noh foundation swan about in European theatres and galleries or traditional Japanese settings. The mood is dark, refined, poised, poisonous, mannered, snooty, baroque, aristocratic. But the timelessness is of its time. This is a very 1980s take on classicism; images of traditional Japanese arts and crafts float above electronic 'bamboo music' scores reminiscent of Kraftwerk and The Yellow Magic Orchestra.

What do Lutens and Wilp's films have in common? Is it their strangeness or their sheer folie de grandeur which attracts me to them? Do they transcend their eras, or perfectly express them? How has time changed their strangeness? Is it their directors I admire, or their epochs? Do I love their liveliness or their deadness? And how on earth is it possible to like them both, when their techniques, worldviews and references are as different as the 60s and the 80s, revolution and counter-revolution?

I wonder if anyone is making such self-consciously strange commercials now, in what might turn out to be the twilight years of time-based push-media? Is there a Wilp or a Lutens out there directing a swansong for the format as beautiful as these films? I have no idea. You see, I can't stand repetition and I feel trapped by too much exposure to the dogma of the times, the doxa. So I try to make sure I don't see any commercials. Not until they're safely strange, anyway; vintage, retro, framed in some museum, pressed like brittle flowers in the pages of someone's PhD thesis. Ask me again in 25 years.

(The Afri-Cola archives are hosted by Afri-Cola. The Shiseido archive is hosted by Grey Art Gallery, New York University. If you're having trouble playing the media files, paste the URLs directly into RealPlayer's "Open Location" window.)

Posted in: Business

Comments [14]

these afri-cola ads are so great! it's like a fellini-satyricon remake by warhol

"I wonder if anyone is making such self-consciously strange commercials now..."

I'd say yes, based on this UK Honda diesel ad (it's a .zip file of an MPG, about 6.77MB).

Prairie Home Companion song, Teletubby visuals, and a theme of 'hate' and 'change'. It's about diesel engines, mind you.
Chris Rugen

This subject reminds me of an episode of the Simpsons where Homer becomes 'Mr Plow'. His first ad is straight talking to camera local TV style. His second (when the business is in trouble) is a surreal masterwork with opera soundtrack, that itself references Citizen Kane.

I recently came across a page devoted to Estonian TV commercials from the 1980s (I can't remember where I found the link -- probably kottke.org). Some of them are quite odd, although I suppose most Estonian commercials are odd if you don't understand Estonian.

Link: Link

Jonathan Hughes

This is the process by which messages with an instrumental purpose - selling us stuff - can sometimes be appreciated later as "art". The products no longer exist, the context has gone, and the once imperative sales message drops away like a worn-out skin. A ravishing example: the huge Campari ad designed in 1960 by Bruno Munari, now on display in the design section at MoMA. This typographic collage made from fragments of the word "Campari" is so unlike anything you'd find in a drinks campaign now - it has such a high level of aesthetic refinement; it's so assertive as form yet, in sales terms, restrained - that it's a struggle to see it as an ad at all.

But of course, in most cases this doesn't happen because the aesthetic content of the ad never possessed this degree of fullness in the first place. A lot of old advertising - still or moving - just looks clunky or kitsch as the years roll by. Sometimes in a recuperable, retro way; but more often not. Certainly it can appear "strange" to us, sociologically strange, weird in its areas of emphasis, perhaps, but not, as a rule, in the bizarre, phantasmal, delirious way you are talking about.

Momus, do we actually want the ad industry to concoct self-consciously strange advertising, ads and commercials that look peculiar to us today, before they have even had the chance to disappear into history? That's something different, surely, from the kind of retrospectively intensified strangeness you describe, which comes from an intrinsically odd vision on the part of the ad-maker combined with the warping perceptual effect produced by shifts in fashion, style and taste over time. What could be phonier than advertising that actually strives - as British commercials director Tony Kaye used to strive - to have us perceive it as ready-to-hang gallery art?
Rick Poynor

Wonderful insights - you've inspired me for the day - Thank you!

Momus, do we actually want the ad industry to concoct self-consciously strange advertising?

That's an interesting question. I think my answer, personally, is yes. I don't care whether ad directors consider their work as art, but I would like them to make their ads more strange. We live in an information environment where everything is formulaic, tautological, repetitious, phatic. There's a kind of entropy that sets in when things are too familiar; you get a narrow self-referencing culture where the same fifty pop records are played, the same fifty celebs displayed, the same fifty ads repeat fifty times. Why can't we just stream fresh information all the time? Why must the snake eat its tail for breakfast, lunch and dinner?

If I'd had more space I would have gone on to talk about Russian formalist Viktor Shklovsky's concept of ostranenie, the deliberate making-strange of things. Advertising values memorability and pattern recognition, and those things are pleasures, but difficulty and novelty and freshness are also pleasures. It's a pleasure to play a difficult computer game, to work out what those Nathan Barley posters you mention in your Eye piece are actually advertising, or to come to a new understanding of something.

I have the impression that in the 1960s it was more common for poets to work in advertising (Peter Porter, for one), or painters (Bruno Munari). I guess now they're all aspiring film-makers. But often they don't get to make strange commercials until they make films; think of the spooky--and hauntingly beautiful--Japanese ads glimpsed in "Bladerunner". I suppose you need to be picturing some other society (a foreign one, or a science fiction one) to see that haunting strangeness... or be looking at your own society through the wrong end of a pair of binoculars, or twenty five years back.
Nick Currie

It's not just the 80's, you know; Japanese commercials were weird in the 90's and still are, at least as of last summer.

Like the farmers who testify before Congress that just as in the last 20 years, rainfall has been below average, I'm sure part of the strangeness is derived from cultural otherness. If all your country's commercials are strange, then none of them are.

That said, the Satie/repetition comment reminds me of a Japanese Mr. Donuts commercial that's been burned into my brain for years. It was a tight, slightly wide angle-distorted shot of the face of Tokoro Johji, a famous comedian, spitting out the the word "pochi" over and over, while donut holes and little purses (aka "pouches"} twirled in the four corners of the screen. Apparently, if you buy enough donuts, you get a free pouch. Make it stop!

Why can't we just stream fresh information all the time? Why must the snake eat its tail for breakfast, lunch and dinner?

But you know the answer to this. The mass demand for mass-produced products encouraged by advertising equals vast profits. Things which are independent, quirky and perhaps difficult in some way struggle to achieve distribution. They have to find their audiences where they can. You ought to know, Momus. Luckily, there are still plenty of chinks in the set-up for the independent-minded to exploit and plenty of people who want an alternative to the same 50 records, celebs etc, and make the effort to go out and find it.

So is your call for strangeness in contemporary advertising a call for ad people to subvert advertising itself, and produce ads that aren't really about selling the product, but more about encouraging some other kind of aesthetic/conceputal experience?

And is the underlying system itself OK so long as advertising has this kind of surface-level variety?

Or is the finding of strangeness in present-day advertising just a personal strategy for not paying attention to the actual content and purpose - the sales message - in the ad? A kind of defence. But it can't really be this, can it, if, as you say, you avoid looking at contemporary ads? By doing this you are already resisting the message in the most effective way possible.
Rick Poynor

Fellini himself did some strange commercials for Banco di Roma in the early 80s. And there are plenty of other sensational commercials that would never air in the US because of their content. There's an interesting compendium of these commercials in a tape called "The Fine Art of Seperating People from Their Money," hosted by, of all people, Dennis Hopper. More recently, the directors Michel Gondry and Spike Jonze have created some great, smart and strange commercials.
David Hartman

These seem like evocative excerpts with a lot of product placement. If product placement is a good idea, and growing trend, in longer pieces, why not in shorts.

What is marvelous in these is that there is no clear point, joke, narrative, or nugget of irony. They seem like a sincere expression of someone's interests and imagination.
Trent Williams

You want weird? The aforementioned Estoniad minced poultry meat ad. It's less noir than AfriCola's, but very strange nonetheless.

Nick, I didn't know you too were an admirer of the Russian formalist Viktor Shklovsky's concept of ostranenie. This came up in a previous post of mine as well.
William Drenttel

Time and repetition are good keywords to consider advertisments, but doesnt always match with the tendency to look within the frame, as if these are autonomous artworks/short films, etc. when commissions and ad industry are so delegated to all outside the frame, the economy,etc.

Ads changing concepts and shapes are not unlike the history of tall buildings or skyscrapers - they look as they do primarily in order to relate to utilizing every centimeter of building air and space zoning laws, and only after that as well to compete against OTHER tall buildings visual signature.

Print or TV ads work to make use of the rules and cost-relations for every amount of allowable small format unit. In the past decades, since the 80s, it seems the philosophical division exists between the ad art or the art of the ad, but when considering why one recalls them, or why ads effect later, only one factor survives usually, the "art" of the ad imagery. But it wasnt perceived solely due to that in the first run - the point of its being memorable enough to recall or not.

That is not uninteresting when considering searching ads on web archives, seeing how the archives imagine ad "content", and what difficulties a historian may have.

For example, how to archive:
a television spot for ProductA appears once in normal duration, then three completely different unrelated advertisments follow, then after the same product A spot returns, but much shorter (less expensive) maybe a new camera angle, as an echo to recall the story left in the first spot, to keep the flow going. And sometimes it appears later again a third time, shorter yet again, a punctuation.

In a way this was admitting in tv watching behavior while being creative, playing with time and repetition, but as a basic economic factor, rather than to the content side within the frame. The effect of being admitted in, as a viewer with some intelligence and memory, rather than being bombarded with the same full ad over and over, was to a large degree the fresh "content", and hardly the imagery within the frame as I recall. I think it matches to the idea of recalling advertisment creativity is set within the economy of time and repetition of an industry.

 Momus Nick Currie, more popularly known under the artist name Momus (after the Greek god of mockery), is a songwriter, blogger and former journalist for Wired.

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