Sunday, March 11, 2007

Pierre Berton, David Foster Wallace, Advertising

When I was very young I remember watching TV with my parents and seeing a commercial where a popular movie star endorsed a headache tablet, possibly Aspirin. My dad, in his efforts to educate the family, said the movie star probably didn't even USE that brand. He told me that celebrities didn't endorse products because they BELIEVED in them, but because they got a lot of MONEY for doing it.

I told my parents that if *I* were a celebrity, and if I were asked to endorse a product that I didn't believe in, I'd go on live television and tell EVERYBODY that I didn't believe in the product. I felt awfully brave and honest when I said this but I noticed that my parents weren't impressed, and I think my mom told me I'd end up getting myself sued.

While this memory is a bit tangled up with my subsequent worries that Morris the Cat didn't really enjoy 9 Lives cat food, I think it instilled in me a healthy cynicism about advertising. Rather than get crotchety about advertisements I try to see the "fun" in the industry, and I also try to ignore that their only purpose is to line the pockets of company executives -- often by instilling fear in consumers -- and that -- yes -- Morris probably DIDN'T really like 9 Lives.

To take a break from heavy reading (but still stick with a "Canadiana" theme) I've decided to start a book of short, funny essays by Pierre Berton called "Just Add Water and Stir." The book came out in 1959 and is a "best of" collection of some of the satirical and social columns he wrote for the Toronto Star.

I've read the first three stories in quick succession and I'm sort of shocked and disturbed. He's poking fun at the advertising business by exposing some small common practice, magnifying it, and taking it to its logical (and hopefully impossible) conclusion. In "The Great Detergent Premium Race," for instance, rival detergent companies start offering mail-in prize contests. Each company is forced to one-up the rival by providing more prizes, until the boxes of detergent contain ONLY prizes...and no actual detergent.

That alone would be a cute little newspaper column, but Berton takes it one step further: the practice quickly spreads to non-detergent companies, some of whom offer DETERGENT as their prizes. So, if you want to actually BUY detergent, you have to buy a box of Whiffle towels, which comes with detergent as a "prize" but does not actually contain a towel. If you want a Whiffle towel you need to buy a box of detergent, which contains a Whiffle towel as its prize...but no detergent. This "extra step" started to remind me of the work of another author...

The next two stories are similar: they're essentially about the extraordinary lengths of fakery that ad agencies use in order to make their products sincere, relevant, and appealing. Pierre Berton does this in a deadpan style, stooping to a cheap joke now and then but mostly writing in a style more reminiscent of newspaper reporting than short-story writing. And what's more, he always takes it a step beyond into a level of silliness that you didn't see coming.

By the third story I was so surprised that I shouted the most shocking word I could think of: "Krasny!" It no longer felt like I was reading Pierre Berton...I could have sworn I was reading David Foster Wallace instead, without all the footnotes and gimmickry. At its center, the TONE and CONTENT of Wallace's work sounds EXACTLY like Pierre Berton's. Krasny!

Meanwhile many of us Canadians have spent all these years making fun of Berton as one of those non-celebrity celebrities who filled the void of Canadian media before it had ACTUAL celebrities, that stable of stuffy "stars" who were on all the news programs and talk shows but you never actually recognized (or even knew what they did for a living). In short: an ideal panelist for "Front Page Challenge."

And yet here he was spoofing advertising in exactly the same way David Foster Wallace does...40 years earlier. David Foster Wallace is hailed as a brilliant satirist, but very few people even care who Pierre Berton was.

Or maybe I've just been living in a cultural bubble? Either way it's weird.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

1) I had a friend whose father was a delivery driver for Meister Brau beer in Chicago. Every month he dropped off several cases of beer at the apartment of Franklyn MacCormack, the mellifluous announcer of WGN radio's all-night program, "The Meister Brau Showcase." Why? To endorse a product, a celebrity had to at least appear to be using the product. Supposedly MacCormack gave the beer away--he got that voice by drinking scotch exclusively.

2) I have a first American edition of "The Impossible Railway" somewhere around here by a P. Berton--ah, "Canada's premier journalist," the dust jacket tells me, "at home in all media"...

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eli said...

Yeah, I mostly just knew about Pierre Berton, Respected Historian.

I'll have to track that one down. It should go over well at work. :D

Muffy St. Bernard said...

Yes, I've never been sure how much celebrities need to keep up appearances when they do sponsorships. Advertisers and consumers seem more concerned about the moral behaviour of their celebrities than they are about whether or not they actually USE that hair removal product...

Muffy St. Bernard said...

Exactly...the Canadian section of any bookstore is crammed with huge Pierre Berton history books, often about relatively short periods of time.

I'm thinking I'm overdue for picking one or two up...

VanillaJ said...

I remember Pierre's last product endorsement before his death: he advocated legalizing pot. Oh, Pierre! How I miss the cranky old man.

Muffy St. Bernard said...

We hardly knew ye, P.B.!

Muffy St. Bernard said...

Holy cow...he wrote "The Secret World of Og!" I loved that book!

It was about caves, after all.