The ad man sees what Americans really care about

Pop culture expert James B. Twitchell will be watching the Super Bowl to see what Americans really care about: stuff, stuff and more stuff.


GAINESVILLE — Here is what James B. Twitchell will NOT be doing come Sunday afternoon: He will not be listening to music. He won’t even curl up with his beloved New York Times.

He will set aside the usual Sunday rituals for something decidedly lowbrow. Like gazillions of other Americans, he will be glued to the Super Bowl.

He will watch on his 35-inch RCA. He will keep the remote control handy. He might even gulp Cheetos and swill a Coke.

Now it is time to tell you something else about Twitchell and Super Bowl Sunday: He won’t actually watch the game.

Football? Twitchell, a University of Florida professor who studies popular culture, doesn’t watch the Super Bowl to see thick-necked linebackers and acrobatic wide receivers bash heads. He watches for the ads.

“The Super Bowl is not a game,” says Twitchell, whose latest book is Twenty Ads That Shook the World. “It’s a carnival of consumption.”

If you want to understand popular culture, Twitchell tells people, just watch the ads. They may not tell you what Americans need, but they tell what today’s America is all about.

“We want stuff,” says Twitchell, who is sometimes accused of apologizing for the culture of materialism. He says he respects it as a mongoose had better respect a cobra, but does not worship it. He thinks somebody should study it, and study it mindfully.

That’s why he’ll be paying special attention to the Super Bowl, an hour’s worth of action tucked into three hours of showcase ads. The players may think the day is all about them, but advertisers know better.

Budweiser. Microsoft. Ford trucks. FedEx. Money investing. And celebrities galore. If Sunday’s extravaganza runs true to form, we’ll see at least 70 come-ons for stuff, stuff, stuff.

As commercials go, they’ll mostly be clever. They should be. Each costs millions to produce, with advertisers paying roughly $2-million for every 30 seconds of air time.

Some commercials will be forgotten by the third quarter. Others we will rehash at the water cooler the next morning.

And maybe next time we have a hankering for a four-wheel drive pickup truck with leather seats and a CD changer, we’ll choose the one advertised on the Super Bowl. Not because we need to spend 30 grand on rubber and pig iron, but because we desire a truck that will make us feel like a tough old cob who just might climb Mount Everest if he didn’t have to work as a stockbroker.

A good ad seldom sells a product. It sells a story that goes along with the product. We buy the story. The story gives us the excuse to buy the stuff.

“The idea that advertising creates artificial desires rests on a wistful ignorance of history and human nature, on the hazy romantic feelings that there existed some halcyon era of noble savages with purely natural needs,” Twitchell writes in Twenty Ads That Shook The World.

“Once we are fed and sheltered, our needs are and have always been cultural, not natural. Until there is some other system to codify and satisfy those needs and yearnings, commercialism — and the culture it carries with it — will continue not just to thrive but to triumph.”

Twitchell has mixed feelings about all of this. The part of him with a doctoral degree in 19th century poetry can be appalled by carnival culture. The part that loves Wonder Bread and has a taste for Spam is fascinated.

Nike dreams

“My heart leaps up,” Twitchell read aloud, “when I behold . . .” He stopped, waiting for a student to supply the rest of the line: “a rainbow in the sky.

Faces stared blankly. What was wrong with these students? How could English majors be unaware of William Wordsworth’s famous work? Earlier generations, raised on books, probably would have known.

Twitchell wondered if young Americans had any culture touchstones of their own. Then it dawned on him.

If he asked them what’s in a Big Mac, they’d recite “Two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles and onions on a sesame-seed bun.” If he said “Just do it,” they’d point to their Nikes. If he hummed Like a Rock, they wouldn’t think of Bob Seger, but of Daddy’s Chevy truck.

It wasn’t because they were dumb or ignorant. It was just that advertising and consumption had become their culture. For a college prof, it was an epiphany.

What did it mean that advertising was so powerful it could render irrelevant everything from works of great literature to the teachings of the Bible or the Koran?

Twitchell, born during World War II, began studying pop culture. Sam’s Club became his classroom, the mall his university. Michael Jordan, he learned, was better known than the Pope. If you wore the gym shoes he endorsed, maybe you could fly too.

Twitchell learned that ads bombard the typical American every day. There were TV, radio and print, of course. There were bus benches and billboards. There were T-shirts worn by colleagues. There were ads above urinals.

“The only place you can escape ads is in your sleep,” he says.

Some colleagues argue. Well, just shut off the TV. Listen to public radio. Get a life. Spend more time in the woods, for God’s sake.

So what if you do? Perhaps you will be satisfied by the twittering of pine warblers. But maybe you will feel the sting of mosquitoes and wish you’d brought along the Deep Woods Off. Perhaps you’ll be thinking of those L.L. Bean boots you always wanted, with a matching pair of Levi’s, an Eddie Bauer flannel shirt, a Tilley all-weather hat and, of course, a Swiss Army watch, the one with the earthy leather band.

James Twitchell says, “Ads are so much a part of your life that you don’t notice them.”

The price of romance

They enjoy being fooled. But if they are going to be fooled, they want to be entertained. The entertainment gives them the incentive to buy stuff

The first salesmen were preachers who sold the promise of the next world. Salesmen like Barnum peddled salvation in this one: Come see my bearded lady and you’ll have seen everything worth seeing.

Yet ads didn’t become a big deal until the Industrial Revolution, Twitchell says. Before the IR folks had few choices of what to buy. Their town may have had a single tailor, a single general store, a single gunsmith.

Suddenly, all this stuff was mass produced. The supply exceeded demand. Thus was born modern advertising.

The famous adman Rosser Reeves liked to hold up two quarters, point to one, and announce: “My job is to make you think that this quarter is more valuable than that one.”

He was an expert at using the new medium of television. In Twenty Ads That Shook the World Twitchell admires the way Reeves made a common pill — the aspirin — into a best-selling product, Anacin.

Reeves made a commercial showing a hammer banging an anvil inside a human skull. “CAN’T YOU PLAY SOMEWHERE ELSE?” shrieked an otherwise kind-hearted mom to her children during the worst of a tension headache. The ad cost $8,200 to produce. Sales of Anacin swelled $36-million in 18 months.

The job of the advertiser is to convince you that his product, though almost identical to Brand X, Y and Z, is more valuable than they are.

My soap (virtually the same as any soap) will make you smell more appealing to the opposite sex. My toothpaste will eliminate that yellow scum that has made you a social outcast.

And you — young man in love? You call that embarrassing little stone a diamond? Your fiance deserves better.

“Is two months’ salary too much for a diamond engagement ring?” asked a famous post-World War II ad for De Beers Consolidated Mines Limited.

“Humans love things,” Twitchell says. “We’ve always been materialistic.”

Nobody wants to believe that. We’re spiritual people. We have real values and know what is important. Hey, the Germans tore down the Berlin Wall because they wanted to live in a democracy, not because they wanted to go to Taco Bell or squeeze Mister Whipple’s Charmin. Right?

“Advertising,” wrote George Orwell, author of the anti-totalitarian novel 1984, “is the rattling of a stick inside a swill bucket.”

Poor Orwell. The most famous ad in Super Bowl history quoted him.

People, including Twitchell in his new book, still talk about the ad that introduced Apple Computer to the world in 1984. Directed by Ridley Scott, who later made Alien, the ad was a spooky black-and-white affair.

Mindless male drones — they could almost be IBM computer users — march disconsolately into an assembly hall to hear the latest propaganda on the video screen. Suddenly, an athletic woman, eluding guards, flings a sledgehammer into the screen. It shatters. There’s an explosion and a heavenly flash.

Then comes the announcement:

“On January 24, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like 1984.”

Writes Twitchell: “Not only was this event able to layer itself over a canonical work of high culture, over the women’s movement, over IBM’s entire advertising campaign, even over the growing anti-big government sentiment associated with the Reagan “revolution,’ it also layers itself into one of the central male institutions of modern life: the Super Bowl, or, as it has since become, the Advertising Bowl.”

Last year’s most discussed Advertising Bowl ad featured the paralyzed actor Christopher Reeves. In it, he appears to walk. Some viewers found it tasteless. Some found it inspiring. Perhaps if we invest our money with Nuveen a miracle will happen to us too.

The Lucky Sperm Culture

Twitchell was born in Vermont. His dad was a doctor. Health minded, his dad forbade the consumption of Coke (“sugar water”) and Wonder Bread (“air, water, flour.”)

His dad is dead. When Twitchell flips through Vanity Fair magazine, he ignores the articles and reads the ads for expensive jewelry and perfume. His next book, to be published late in the year, will be about the consumption of luxury items.

Is a Rolex worth more than a poem by Wordsworth?

“The body of culture I grew up with has evaporated,” Twitchell says. “Something else has replaced it.”

His culture was New England conservative.

“I came from what I call the Lucky Sperm Culture. That means luck of birth. Where you were born, what your father did, where you went to church, that was what gave your life value.

“The Lucky Sperm Culture has been undermined in the last 30 years. Now it’s what you can buy that gives your life value.

“It’s awful. It’s gauche. But it’s wonderful in a way because it’s more democratic. If you graduate from high school, and you don’t get pregnant or get anyone else pregnant, if you get a job and avoid drugs, you can probably afford things your grandparents couldn’t afford. Even if you can’t buy a Lexus, you can lease it. You can buy diamonds with MasterCard.

“Nobody cares where or if you go to church anymore. Nobody cares if you speak with a funny accent. What’s important is what you own.

“It’s still a wicked system. But sometimes I think it’s relatively more fair than the Sperm Culture.”

Things go better with . . .

Twitchell’s office is in Turlington Hall, in the middle of campus. He used to drive a Mazda Miata and now owns a BMW, but most days he pedals his $40 bike to school through a forest of students wearing baggy brand-name shorts that reach to their knees and expose their Joe Boxers.

When Twitchell was a student at the University of Vermont and at the University of North Carolina, young people wore their hair like Elvis or the Beatles, they dressed in dungarees, they quoted Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. The difference? The advertising culture was less powerful.

“The young people for the most part don’t even notice now,” Twitchell says. “Nike is the official shoe of the athletic teams here. Coke has pouring rights on campus. It’s hard to find a Pepsi. Students don’t see that as extraordinary. They say, “So what?’ It’s no big deal. It’s the culture they live in.”

Twitchell’s office is tiny and cramped. His walls are filled with posters and paintings that celebrate his work. His icons include prints of 19th century paintings — and a photograph of Hulk Hogan. Wrestlers, like pro football players, are celebrities who are useful to advertisers.

On a recent Friday, on the promenade below Twitchell’s office, a Bible-thumping red-haired man shows up about noon to confront students. “Repent,” he yells, spittle flying, as a woman friend carries a sign condemning abortion. “And you’ll be saved!”

“Boobs!” screams a male student in reply. “I love boobs.”

Ah, carnival culture. Vulgarians holler slogans at each other, no matter how absurd, and nothing is all that serious. Twitchell’s right. The culture is a sideshow, populated by people who smell good and have no tension headaches.

And now a word from our sponsor.

Those ads that shook the world

James B. Twitchell’s list of the most profound ads or advertisers in history:

1. P.T. Barnum promotes himself and the circus. Late 19th century.

2. Lydia E. Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound makes patent medicines a mainstream product. 1880s.

3. Pears’ Soap touts its pleasant smell. 1886.

4. Pepsodent shames consumers who practice bad personal hygiene. 1920s.

5. Listerine shames bad breath. 1924.

6. The Queensboro Corporation becomes one of the first advertisers on radio and sells real estate. 1922.

7. The Kid in Upper 4 celebrates soldiers while making mass transportation users feel guilty for complaining about slow railroad service. 1942.

8. De Beers Consolidated Mines Limited comes up with the immortal “Diamonds are forever” slogan. 1948.

9. Coke makes its soft drink a wintertime treat by showing Santa in the ad. 1964.

10. Volkswagen Beetle makes driving a small, underpowered vehicle a cool thing. 1962.

11. Miss Clairol’s “Does She or Doesn’t She?” campaign gives permission to ordinary women — not just prostitutes — to color their hair. 1955.

12. The Marlboro Man sells macho along with nicotine. 1950s.

13. The Hathaway Man — a sophisticated man who knows the finer things of life — makes an ordinary shirt into a brand name. 1951.

14. Anacin knocks identical pain relievers out of the ballpark with its famous tension-headache TV ad. 1950s.

15. LBJ vs. Goldwater uses a child’s image and a mushroom cloud to suggest that the wrong presidential choice might lead to nuclear annihilation. 1964.

16. Charlie ad promotes the feminist movement — and man-pleasing perfume. 1970s-1980s.

17. Absolut Vodka makes its bottle a work of art and eclipses other vodkas. 1980s.

18. Apple 1984 ad sells its new computer as counter-culture tool. 1984.

19. Infomercials give late-night channel switchers something to watch. 1990s.

20. Nike and Michael Jordan combine two brands of household names to create a powerhouse. 1980s-2001.