Dot-Com Crash

So the dot-coms fell, and thus, as was said joyfully by some, business had to go back to supplying actual things. The Web is likewise in trouble, partly because the sites can no longer survive on advertising. It could be worse than that. The Web may be revealing one of the Great Dirty Secrets of American culture: Advertising doesn't work.

You knew that all along. It has been said that everyone believes that advertising works, but not on them. A surprising number of them are right about the second part.

On Mad Ave. a genius is a person who's had two successful ad campaigns in a row; a god has had three. I remember The Hidden Persuaders, the book about how the evil geniuses of advertising were using Freudian tricks to manipulate us into buying. A few days after I read the book, I saw a gasoline commercial that featured a close-up of the gas nozzle going into the tank. Aha.

Didn't work, though. Products with powerfully suggestive brand names died like dogs, and the most successful brand name in the world today is Microsoft. (This may also mean that Freudian psychology has been operationally tested, and it failed. As Paul Goodman said, we should be grateful that the social sciences don't work, or those in power would use them on us.)

Now there is an objective measure of how well an ad works: Every time someone clicks on your ad, it has worked. I believe that less than a tenth of a percent of those who look at a given page click on one of its ads.

This too, has brought rejoicing, and I can see why. Advertising is a form of pollution. Much of it is as ugly as what you'd get if you bred Yogi Berra with Linda Tripp, and the ad biz keeps finding more ways to make it intrude upon us. I fear that we are approaching the Philip K. Dick future where ads buzz around our heads and sting us if they catch us not paying attention. But there's another issue.

Advertising has always been looked down upon as a fraud perpetrated by clever symbol manipulators to get paid for intellectual performances that do no real good for anyone. As the old joke has it, "Don't tell my mother I work on Madison Avenue. She thinks I play piano in a whorehouse."

OK, time for a confession: When I was too young and innocent to know better, I was told that religion was nothing but a shuck created by clever symbol manipulators to evade their fair share of the Real Work. That's a gross oversimplification even if the materialists are right, but I didn't know that.

I disapproved of course, but I'm afraid that deep down inside, I felt that this was not an entirely bad thing. I am still tempted to believe that one ideal role for the intellectual is as shaman to a tribe sufficiently benighted to believe that the shaman needn't do the ordinary work and that if the Alpha messes with the shaman too much, the crops will not grow. The closest I know of to that ideal in recent years is the role of certain computer professionals in the business world.

And so, I find myself tempted to be sympathetic, or at least amused. Those sly ad tricksters actually managed to convince the alpha males who run the business world that everything needs to be advertised, that nothing would be purchased without advertising. I am not making this up: There are ads for Viagra.*

(Who are these ads supposed to appeal to? Let's imagine: "Well, gee, I'd like to be able to get it up, but I don't know if it's worth doing anything about…Oh! Look! Getting cured of erectile dysfunction is cool and with it and socially acceptable. Bob Dole does it. OK, now I'm going to go see my doctor.")

And yet I'm sure that advertising does sometimes communicate, though not what it intends to. I imagine that the collapse of the dot-coms began with last year's Super Bowl, and all those dumb commercials. (OK, I'm overgeneralizing. The cat-herding commercial and all those dumb ones.)

I know that a lot of ads, particularly on things like the Super Bowl, are not meant to sell products directly. They are meant to say, "We are here"—to leave the sponsor's mark on the media as a dog leaves his mark on a tree. The Super Bowl commercials went beyond that. The dot-commies seemed to be screaming, "We are here. We have a lot of money. And we are far too stupid to have any idea what to do with it." How many of the ads tried that clever switcheroo of promising to be the dullest commercial you'd see all day? I have no idea which won, but they all gave it the old college try, including several that didn't mention that as their approach. Perhaps the bad commercials were even more obvious by contrast, because this was one of the rare good Super Bowls, with the Rams stopping the Titans at the very last second.

I imagine it took a while for the realization to penetrate. Nobody wanted to say anything. People rationalized: The skin tones on the emperor's new clothes are fairly lifelike…The depiction of the tiny, malformed genitalia is chillingly realistic…But finally, the message got through.

I recently read about the British royal crisis in the 1930s, when King Edward VIII was about to be crowned, but he loved Wallis Simpson, a divorced commoner, whom the rules said he couldn't marry. There was a news blackout on the whole business, which in those pre-Internet days meant that no one in Great Britain published a word about it, newspapers from outside had the offending stories cut out before they could be brought into the country, and of course everyone knew anyway. The pressure to discuss the whole mess in public grew to a near-explosive level, but someone had to go first.

Finally, a minor bishop of the Church of England said in a sermon that Edward VIII "should look to the condition of his own soul." With that, the cultural sphincter opened….It then transpired that the bishop had been one of the 17 persons in the United Kingdom who had not heard about Mrs. Simpson; he was concerned with an ugly rumor that Edward VIII planned to open his coronation to Methodists and other lesser breeds without the law.

Perhaps there was a similar start to the dot-com collapse. Some financial personage mentioned "the Super Bowl disaster," setting off a panic when he was merely complaining of his own injudicious investment in the fortunes of the Titans. The rest is history. [2001]

*This was before Viagra had competitors [2005]