Which is worse -- ads or their regulation? The question has no simple answer.
Bernie Moskovitz leaned back, loosened his tie, and nodded at the young woman across from the desk. "What do you have?"
His apprentice, Charlene, hunched forward in her chair and cleared her throat. "It's, uh, it's a cigarette commercial."
Moskovitz's mouth fell open. "A cigarette commercial? Why waste your time on that? You'll never get it approved."
Charlene sniffed and rubbed her hands together. With her short black hair and perky features, she could have been pretty, but a frown and wrinkled brow distorted her face. "Well, maybe the council will pass this one. It's very low key. And, after all, cigarettes are a legitimate commodity." She cleared her throat. "Uh, I know this isn't the best product, Bernie, but clients are sort of sparse now."
Bernie pressed his lips together and drummed his fingers on the desk. "I know, I know. All right, let's see your production."
The woman handed Moskovitz a three-inch reddish-brown video-card that the senior advertising consultant inserted into a slot on the top of his desk. The room darkened and the wall seemed to disappear, revealing a hologram of a ramshackle newspaper vendor's stand. A horn honked over the whizzing of cars off screen. Bernie, who remembered videos of the previous generation, smiled at the clarity of the display.
A handsome man about 40 in a well-tailored suit approached the stand's proprietor and asked, "Do you sell cigarettes?"
"Sure do!" The vendor's face lit up. He was about 60, unshaven, and with a huge paunch. He wore a loose, frayed brown sweater over a stained white apron over a dirty flannel shirt.
"What brands do you carry?" asked the man.
"Just Greyhounds." The vendor reached under the counter and brought out a pack. A toothy grin crossed his face. "They’re one of the oldest brands around and can be found in more places than any other cigarette."
"That's fine. I'll take a box." The package, flanked by the smiling avuncular face of the merchant, enlarged to fill half the screen. Words flashing underneath announced, "Greyhounds, The Most Available Brand in
"What do you think?" Charlene said, on the edge of her chair.
Bernie ejected the disk, handed it to her and leaned back. He eyed the thigh under her pleated skirt and quickly looked away. Too many sexual harassment suits in the past year, and he didn't want to add to them. "Charlene, it's impossible. It'll never fly."
"But why?" The novice producer clenched her fists. "Every word, every frame is strictly true. The vendor isn't even an actor. His stand is three blocks from my apartment."
Good way to save money, Bernie thought, running his fingers through thinning brown hair. "The individual brush strokes may be true, but the total picture isn't. Most cigarette smokers are old and sickly, whereas your customer looks like he came straight from a racquetball court. And most vendors are ashamed to sell the stuff. If your friend is truly a cigarette man, he's the only happy one in
Charlene, lips tight, looked down. Bernie continued. "Don't you understand? You’re trying to market what is actually an addictive drug. In the old days we could do that. Ads could make shit sound like gold and, as long as they didn't actually say that shit was gold, it was legal. But this is 2028. We have regulations. You can't make cigarettes sound attractive and still stay within the Advertising Supervisory Staff guidelines."
"But this brand, Greyhounds, is in fact the most available. That is a perfectly true and accurate statement which doesn't make any unbalanced claims or mislead anyone. It simply says that people who smoke cigarettes can find Greyhounds more easily than other brands. That's valid, isn't it?"
"Yes, the point is valid. But the whole picture is too cheerful, too upbeat for a cigarette ad. Change the customer. Make him more typical. And wipe that smile off of the vendor's face. Then bring it back and we'll try again."
Charlene shook her head. "A grungy smoker and a sour salesperson, will repel customers."
Bernie shrugged. "Basically, the long term effects of cigarette smoking are repulsive. And under the guidelines, we can't make them look otherwise."
"Whose side are you on, anyway?" Charlene said with sudden anger.
"Charlene, the Smithington Agency signs my paycheck just like it signs yours."
"Then why do you always down-thumb my projects?"
The consultant looked at his watch. Only forty minutes until the senior staff meeting. Thinking of the stakes, he smirked, then gave his most genial expression to Charlene. "Better old Bernie should down-thumb you than the Advertising Supervisory Staff. I'll cost you time and effort. ASS disapproval can cost the company a hefty fine, and you your job."
Charlene glowered. "I hate that false smile when you want to get rid of me." She lurched out of her chair and stomped from the room. Bernie, smile momentarily frozen, wondered if training Charlene was worth the effort. Usually Bernie plowed without hesitation towards a goal, but she might not have the endurance needed for this business. Bernie Moskovitz sighed, wishing he still enjoyed the habit of inhaling addicting cigarettes.
He inserted another video-card into his desk. The hologram now showed a young, reasonably good-looking woman with a broad, delighted smile, and a graceful gait. Walking by the lake in
Bernie raised his eyebrows. Having said this woman was a model, the ad did not have to specify that most women would not look as good in the dress. The courts had already settled that. But the ad had another, more subtle, problem. Bernie ran the ad again, staring at the young woman as she stepped gracefully among sun-drenched flowers and smiled at a young man. Moskovitz tapped the desk and started typing:
RECOMMENDATION: Add the words "professionally staged" before the word "model" lest the ASS rules that the ad implies the dress will bring it's owner happy sunny days in the park. Also, replace sexy voice with a more neutral one.
Petty? Maybe, but pettiness was what rendered ads acceptable to the wise, powerful, pain in the ass, Advertising Supervisory Staff. With a click, Bernie ejected the disk and checked his watch. Twenty more minutes until the meeting. Though these gatherings usually bored him, this one got his pulse racing. To kill time he read the weekly Advertising Supervisory Staff summary of decrees. It had been a bad week for most agencies, but four out of five Smithington submissions had passed. The solitary rejection, he noted with pleasure, was one he had voted against.
At five to eleven he buttoned his pink shirt and adjusted his paisley tie, stopped by the cafeteria for a cup of coffee, and reached the conference room just before the vice president, Barbara West, and the CEO, Andrew Stockton. Bernie logged onto a terminal, answered a message from his wife--no, he didn't know when he'd be home--and sat back.
Debate raged over various ads. Bernie scarcely listened until Herb Livings spoke up. Herb, an innovative and respected senior producer, accessed a file with his keyboard and smiled. "I think this ad will make us a lot of money."
A third man, Frank Enders, raised an eyebrow. "Herb, you didn’t use a video-card. Are you leaving material unprotected in main memory now?"
Everyone in the room must have seen Herb’s apparent laxity; only Enders commented on it.
"Some material," Herb answered. Light gleamed off his bald pate. "Not crucial material, naturally." Monitors came to life, showing a thin man in a white chef's hat and apron stirring chocolate in a pot. He splashed a drop onto his finger, licked it and smiled, pleased but certainly not ecstatic. He poured the chocolate into oblong molds. A candy bar popped out of one of the molds and enlarged to fill the screen, while a man's voice said, "Chocolate is not a complete food, but, if you don't eat compulsively, an occasional piece won't hurt. The Dulcet Candy Company sponsored this advertisement and we make good chocolate." The screen went blank.
"Wonderful commercial, Herb," Bernie said. "It approaches all the ASS limits but never goes beyond."
Bernie continued. "But this piece is four years old. It's almost in the public domain, for crying out loud."
"Let's look at a different version," Herb's gravelly voice suggested. This time he used a video-card. The monitors showed the same factory worker and the voice plugging Dulcet candies. Then two small, animated candy bars, running and jumping like children, appeared. One did a back flip and asked, "Do you think people on the Advertising Supervisory Staff like to eat chocolate?"
The other shrugged. "Could be. A lot of people do."
Pandemonium broke out. Phrases like "... can't do that ...", and "... never pass the ASS..." jumped across the table.
Herb waited for the uproar to subside before asking Bernie, "What do you think?"
Bernie looked towards heaven and sighed. "Ten to one the Advertising Supervisory Staff will reject it. Five to one the courts would pass it if we appealed."
Livings chuckled. "My thoughts exactly."
"Herb, we've been hit hard with fines this quarter," Barbara West said. "Too many more and we'll go under."
"If we don't get more business we'll go under. Our ads are dull. We can't get enough clients to survive as is," Enders whined. "What does the ASS want from us?"
Hubbub again filled the room.
"Livings, your addition to a classically dull but acceptable commercial highlights our dilemma; if we stick strictly to guidelines, our product is boring and won't attract clients. Something interesting might be ruled persuasive and so risks rejection and a heavy fine. And if we appeal and lose, the fine is doubled."
"According to my esteemed colleague," Livings said, nodding to Moskovitz, "the odds are with us on this one."
"You two always stick up for each other," one person said and chaotic chatter once more filled the room.
Bernie spoke up without raising his voice. "I think I know a way out of our predicament."
The man next to him heard. "You know a way out?" The phrase spread through the room, crisscrossing waves in a pond, waves which soon died out, leaving the room in silence.
The vice president confronted him. "Bernie, did you say you have a solution?"
"A partial solution. I think so, yes."
"Well, what is it?" she snapped.
"We need to expand our range. Instead of advertising only products consumers can buy with money, we should also help advertise a product consumers can buy with ..." He stopped, enjoying the tension. This was the moment. "Votes."
"Votes?" Pandemonium again reigned.
"Yes! Votes!" Bernie out shouted the competition. "I say we develop a new service to market. Instead of just producing ads for consumer products, we should also evaluate commercials for politicians. AAC doesn't fine politicians. Instead it labels their ads, either 'factual', 'opinion', or the dreaded label 'fantasy.' That last, calling their claims fantasy, is the staff's whip to control the politicos. We’re the experts on the staff, so we can tell the politicians beforehand how their ads will likely be rated."
"That's illegal, Moskovitz," the CEO glowered. "Professional advertising agencies can't produce political campaigns."
"We won't produce campaigns. We'll just consult on them, give our opinions. The candidates produce their own programs." At this point Bernie smiled and shrugged his shoulders. "If they happen to hire our staff and use our studios for those programs, well, no one here works under an exclusive contract, and we sublet our facilities all the time. All that Smithington will do, the only thing the agency officially can do, will be to give its opinion. Perfectly legal."
"You wouldn't possibly have a sample ad to show us?" Barbara West asked.
"As a matter of fact, I do." Bernie chuckled and slotted a video-card.
The room darkened as the far wall lit up, bringing into their conference room the office of Representative Simon Pelham. Pelham, a middle-aged man with luxuriant wavy salt and pepper hair, an effervescent smile, and a mellow voice, sat behind a large mahogany desk and announced to the audience, "Let me show you my dream for
The camera swooped down, showing prosperous people walking down immaculate avenues. Pelham continued, "
Hospitals, factories, houses of worship, and the sanctity of the home all were portrayed in similarly rhapsodic manner under the benevolent gaze of Representative Pelham. Finally his office faded back into view. The congressman turned to his audience and with utmost sincerity said, "What you have seen certainly is not reality. Today it is, as the folks of the Advertising Supervisory Staff so rightly state, only a fantasy. I want to make this fantasy real, and, with your help, I can do so. Without your support, these wonderful visions must remain nothing more than my personal dream. But with your votes, we can together make this fantasy live for all of us."
The picture faded to a black background with white letters. “The Advertising Supervisory Staff has rated this political announcement as a fantasy.”
Bernie Moskovitz looked into the monitor at a thin, pale woman with gray hair in a bun. "Mrs. Barns, why don't you teleconference with 3D holovids instead of two dimensional videos," he said in a friendly tone.
Clarissa Barns scowled. "Sorry, Mr. Moskovitz, but the Advertising Supervisory Staff's budget doesn't permit such luxuries."
"Not even for the chairwoman?" Bernie snickered quietly.
The woman sighed. "Let's get to the point, Bernie. What are you trying to do to us?" She took off her glasses and rubbed the bridge of her nose.
"I'm just trying to make a living for myself and my employer. What would you think I'm trying to do?"
"First that chocolate commercial, and now this Pelham spot. To hear Pelham bragging, positively bragging that his production is a fantasy, nauseates me." She sighed. "That blurb violates every guideline we've promulgated, even down to the ugly gray wig he wears."
Bernie suppressed a chuckle. "As he said, it's a fantasy."
Clarissa drew herself up. "Perhaps ads shouldn't contain references to the Advertising Supervisory Staff itself. Perhaps politicians should be forbidden any contact with ad agencies. Perhaps we need laws to that effect."
Bernie nodded. "Congress, I'm sure, will give your suggestions the greatest consideration."
The chairwoman sagged. "Bernie, please. Before the Advertising Supervisory Staff was formed, companies could describe poisons like alcohol and tobacco as being healthy. There were even cigarettes with names like Slender Misty, which made carcinogens sound like an aid to sexuality. Do you want to return to that?"
Bernie thought Clarissa could use some aid to her sexuality. He shrugged. "You're preaching, Clarissa. Don't ask what I want. Ask the electorate. In 2016, when Hillary Clinton was elected, voters wanted the Advertising Supervisory Staff, and they got it. People's wants are different now."
"The public doesn't know what it wants. Most people don't even know what the Advertising Supervisory Staff is." Clarissa pounded the desk. "52.3 percent can't even describe our mandate, let alone understand the ratings. The fantasy rating is the only restraint we have over political ads. Your tactic will destroy that restraint and confuse the populace even more.
"Advertisers deceive, Bernie. They deceive implicitly and, if they can, explicitly. Before this organization started, anyone with enough money could mislead, bilk, and connive without limit. We are trying to stop that. We don't want to hurt your firm or anyone else. We just want to protect the population from skilled, professionally crafted lies. Don't you understand that? Do you want the Americans again to mistrust all media presentations? Don't you care about truth?"
Charlene looked grimly confident as she handed Bernie a final video-card. "You can't ax this one, Bernie. I know it."
The wall holovid showed an elderly, grungy man in dirty undershirt and suspenders, sitting on an unmade bed and groping on the nightstand. He located a pack of cigarettes and looked at it, expression impassive. "Coffin nails," he muttered. He lit a stick, took a deep breath, and exhaled. Relief settled on his features, the expression every addict knows, that of gratification, albeit transient, of the tormenting craving. The relief lasted only a moment, but that was enough. The old man was wretchedly, hopelessly hooked, but the cigarette momentarily eased his pain, and that moment was heavenly. The crumpled pack filled the screen with the slogan, "Greyhounds, they satisfy."
Bernie whooped with delight. "Charlene, you've got it at last."
The FICTION PAGE
The FICTION PAGE
Copyright 2005 by Zvi Zaks