Now, a few words about your sponsors

January 26, 1995|By Neal Lipschutz | Neal Lipschutz,Special to The Sun

It's one of those statistics that seems way out of whack. Or maybe they just didn't include me in the survey. Here it is: Counting logos, labels and announcements, your typical American is exposed to 16,000 advertisements each and every day. But even if 16,000 seems too high, the point still gets made.

Leslie Savan cites this statistic at the outset of "The Sponsored Life," a collection of her newspaper columns that detail how, through methods subtle and otherwise, so many ads invade the very "fabric of our lives" (to quote a particularly memorable set of commercials for cotton).

Those television commercials for Cotton Inc., which show "realistic" life scenes against a backdrop of soulful singing, are good examples of one of Ms. Savan's key points: that the best-produced commercials, often short dramas on family love, courage and patriotism, can be the most insidious. That's because, when corporate vehicles intended to sell products bring us humans at their bravest or happiest, the ads undermine the authenticity of those emotions and how we experience and remember them.

While Ms. Savan is a clever writer and has many strong points to make, the book has a structural flaw that it can't overcome. Too much of the material simply feels dated. The book is a collection of columns, mostly short, that Ms. Savan wrote in eight years (through 1993) for the liberal New York weekly The Village Voice. They've been grouped in six chapters, but otherwise untouched. Unfortunately, what made them strong columns -- detailed discussion of one ad campaign, a sense of time and place -- has the opposite effect between soft covers.

Even the most rabid TV-watcher would have trouble recalling many of the commercials from the mid- to late 1980s that Ms. Savan selects for skewering. And her larger points are often confined to the final one or two paragraphs of a piece, after her reporting and observation are presented. The reader would have been much better served if Ms. Savan had taken the time to mine her own work and then presented us with synthesized arguments about the trends leading to what she sees as advertising's large contribution to the cheapening and twisting of the American psyche. She could have used examples from her columns to buttress her larger points. Instead, we're left with too many examples and not enough vision, or even cohesion.

Despite all that, there's some interesting stuff here. That Ms. Savan is a sassy and irreverent writer helps things tremendously. Here are three examples of her ability to make a telling point with a pithy line:

* In a 1989 column about an Infiniti commercial that refers to the philosophy behind the luxury car: "Have you noticed how 'philosophy' has lately become divorced from thick books and unemployable postgrads, and instead gilds phrases like 'his philosophy of chopping garlic'?"

* In a 1987 column on the use of non-humans to make commercials:

"Whether animal or vegetable, ad mascots appeal because they don't harbor the greed we expect of their corporate owners. When actors do ads, one often wonders, how much did they get paid to spout this drivel?"

* In a 1990 column on how advertisers try to make the viewer feel himself an individualist while aiming at mass sales of a product: "Being just a twist different and acting whimsical -- i.e., breaking loose by buying a noncola -- is the suburban form of freedom-fighting."

Ms. Savan's point of view is for the most part level-headed liberalism, skeptical of corporations (especially defense contractors) and, as to be expected from a Village Voice columnist, unhappy with former presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush.

Occasionally, though, the negative claims she makes for ads rival the hyperbole she so aptly pins on them. For example, in an otherwise solid piece about anti-drug ads, Ms. Savan seems to blame the ad industry itself for addiction. She writes: "One of the very reasons drugs are a problem is because of advertising culture, encouraging the compulsive taking of something, telling you hundreds of times a day that what you can buy can make you high."

Ms. Savan gives too little credit to people's ability to be skeptical about ads and to their choice not to buy fully into the shallow, material world the ubiquitous ad culture has to sell. After all, she's managed. But it would be foolish to deny the profound impact the ceaseless pounding of sales messages is having on our culture. Ms. Savan has provided a useful catalog of some of those effects.

Mr. Lipschutz is a writer who lives in New York.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "The Sponsored Life: Ads, TV, and American Culture"

Author: Leslie Savan

Publisher: Temple University Press

Length, price: 354 pages, $19.95

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