From Hitler to Hemingway, joke is on Gap


September 23, 1993|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Because I read magazines and look carefully at the advertisements, I have recently learned that Ernest Hemingway wore khakis. It doesn't particularly matter to me that Hemingway wore khakis, but it matters that the people at The Gap clothing outlets who run these magazine advertisements think that it will matter to me.

Also, Humphrey Bogart and Marilyn Monroe, and Sammy Davis Jr. and Picasso. They too wore khakis, and they looked cool, and now people at The Gap clothing outlets want me to care about all these cool dead celebrities, and to identify. Not with the dead part, but certainly with the cool, and mainly with the khakis.

Only now, it turns out, other dead celebrities have worn khakis without The Gap ever mentioning them in their ads. Hitler, for example. A real khaki kind of a guy. And yet, sadly, you never see an advertising campaign built around the forgotten Hitler khakiness.

So it fell to a Baltimore free-lance writer, Christopher Corbett, to set the record straight on great khaki-wearers.

"Hitler? Sharp dresser," Corbett wrote a few weeks ago in a free-lance piece in the Los Angeles Times, a piece accompanied by a photo of Hitler in all his khakified splendor. "Master of the master race looking masterful in khakis."

And Mussolini and Martin Bormann, too, Corbett wrote, and let's not forget Idi Amin Dada and Baby Doc Duvalier.

Great khaki-wearers, all.

Great ad campaigns, never.

Ha-ha, right? A little good-natured send-up of the ad business by Corbett, right?

Well, according to The Gap, not so great. In fact, it was considered so un-great that the company reacted by canceling its advertising in the Los Angeles Times Magazine.

"It's been a very strange experience," says Corbett, 41, a former Associated Press news editor and author of the novel "Vacationland" who now teaches journalism at the University of Maryland Baltimore County while writing free-lance humor pieces. "Everybody but The Gap got the joke."

Corbett's editor at the Times, Allison Silver, telephoned him with the news.

"A little problem," she explained. "The Gap doesn't have a robust sense of humor."

"They want you to think they're laid back," Corbett reflected the other day. "I guess they're not. My feeling was, look at these ads, aren't they pretentious? And then I thought about people who are really identified wearing khakis, like Nazis. I mean, they're political strongman pants. So I thought I'd do a spoof. I never expected this kind of reaction."

By this, he means The Gap's response plus all that followed: stories about the controversy in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Associated Press.

"Yeah, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, which aren't exactly Mad magazine. And yet, somehow, they got the joke," says Corbett. "And then people started calling, people I haven't heard from in years, who thought I'd moved out of the country or been institutionalized."

In other words: The Gap's reaction set off a response quite unlike anything they'd anticipated. They'd forgotten a basic tenet of American life: Nobody likes you if you don't have a sense of humor.

"If people don't want to advertise, I guess they don't have to," Corbett says, "but . . ."

His voice trails off. Never, despite some real off-the-wall humor pieces, has he ever had a reaction like this. Once, he suggested the Russians put Lenin's body on tour to raise some money. Everybody got the joke. Suggested those Biosphere people, hermetically sealed off from the outside world, were secretly sneaking in take-out pizza. Everybody just chuckled.

"I've never had anybody write to complain," says Corbett, whose wife is an editor at The Sun, which is a sister paper of the L.A. Times. "I did a piece once on L.L. Bean. Their attitude was, there's no such thing as bad publicity. The kind of stuff I do is not worth going to war over."

For two weeks, Gap officials refused to comment on the decision to pull their ads. Yesterday, from Los Angeles, Gap public relations director Richard Crisman said, "We're re-evaluating that position."

Why not? Hemingway sometimes re-evaluated his position. So did Bogey and Sammy, and Marilyn and Picasso. And they did it, history tells us, while wearing khakis.

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