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Monday, December 08, 2003

Before I even begin, I will lay my cards on the table:

I am not an anti-consumerist. I do loathe an overproliferation of advertising as much as anyone, and I am weary of being unable to look at a nice big brick building without seeing some 100-foot fabric nightmare trying to sell me Altoids or Diesel jeans or Smirnoff. I get vaguely anxious when I see corporate sponsorship splashed about hither and yon, as in Jean-Paul Gaultier’s new exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum, which is supposed to be about the history of skirts in menswear, but is really just an excuse for him to show off his new designs, which, unsurprisingly, feature skirts for men. I am a wary, cautious consumer, but a consumer nonetheless. Anyone who doubts me need only come home with me and be greeted by the hundredweight of books and specialty grains and French baking equipment that threatens to overtake our living space.

I do not hate fine jewelry. Admittedly, I am not nuts about diamonds. I am more of an emerald girl, so much so that I once nearly talked myself into buying a pair of emerald stud earrings at Bloomingdale’s that I did not need, could not afford and certainly would be too nervous to wear. I should have charged tickets to the performance of the inner monologue on this: “Wow! 50% off! And the sales guy said that all jewelry is an additional 15% on top of that! And if I apply for a Bloomie’s card, I’ll get 10% on top of that! So, if the price is $2,800, that makes $1,400 with the 50% off, minus $420 makes $980, minus $280 if I get the Bloomie’s card...wait a minute, that’s still $700! I can buy two years’ worth of clothes for $700.00! Go home, fool!”

I do not wish for another husband. I think that the one I have is just perfect for me, as I’ve mentioned in this space before and will try not to do overmuch.  I did not follow the New York striver-girl path of sussing out a man’s future earning potential.  From our first date I knew that Lloyd was the fella for me, even if we spent the rest of our lives working at our low-paying retail bookselling jobs.  (Thankfully, we did not.) I want him to do any work that makes him happy.  I do not want him to become a stockbroker, unless he decides it would be a fun thing to do, which I don’t think he will.

Having declared all that, I must confess that today I was driven to a state of simultaneous anger, guilt and self-loathing by advertising.  I realize that in even mentioning this ad, I am rewarding the company that brought me to this state.  If one takes the view that any ad that generates attention and discussion is a good ad, then these ads have done their job.  I admit this freely.  The company in question is De Beers, and they do a brilliant job creating ads that stick in the mind.  Unfortunately.

One thing I like about commuting via Grand Central is that if the weather is really dreadful, I can take advantage of an underground walkway, which the MTA has named, evocatively, the Northeast Passage.  If you follow it all the way to the end, it lets you out literally at my office building.  In bitter cold or pounding rainstorms, it is a godsend.  One tradeoff of staying dry is that you are treated to a good 1/4 mile of advertising, all for the same company; the MTA seems to be selling the ad space as single-vendor space.  This month’s advertiser is De Beers, rolling out all their stops for Christmas, showing giant photographs of diamond rings, earrings, necklaces and tennis bracelets, along with pearls of wisdom, in a full-caps aggressive font, like these:

YOU GOT HER.  SHE GOT YOU.  YOU MIGHT WANT TO DO SOMETHING BEFORE THAT SINKS IN.

SHE’LL STILL HAVE SOMETHING NICE TO LOOK AT WHEN YOU START GAINING WEIGHT AND LOSING HAIR.

HOPE YOU’RE PAYING ATTENTION, BECAUSE THERE WILL BE A TEST ON DECEMBER 25.

WHITE HORSE AND SHINING ARMOR SOLD SEPARATELY.

APPEASE THE GODDESS AND SHE MIGHT LET YOU LIVE ANOTHER YEAR.

And the kicker, the one that nearly made blood gout out of my scalp:

EVER WONDER WHY SO MANY BABIES ARE BORN IN SEPTEMBER?

In case I haven’t made my feelings manifest, I hate, hate, hate these ads.

The thing I hate about these ads is not that they make me want something I don’t have. I hate them because they play on that consumer-striver sentiment. Normally my biggest issue with De Beers ads is that they create desire for baubles in people who can ill-afford to buy them, as witnessed by the ageless chestnut tag line, “How else can two months’ salary last forever?”

The new ads, though, these are different. If I am reading them correctly, they are there to create desire for baubles in people who not only can afford to buy them, but are smug about being able to afford them. I work on Park Avenue, in a giant slab of a building surrounded by other giant slab buildings. UBS is in our building. JPMorganChase is across the street. SalomonSmithBarney, Bank of New York, Citigroup, they’re all right here, and you can’t swing a cat without hitting someone who works for one of these titans, works like a dog, yes, but even in slow years there is money to burn. These are the people for whom De Beers is gunning.

These guys work out at my gym, or, I should say, I work out at their gym, because they are the target market for the gym. It’s a private club, more money than I should be spending for working out, but I suck it up and pay the Amex bill every month because the gym is right across the street, I get my own permanent locker and all workout clothing is provided by the gym, and there isn’t any of that pseudo-high-school-meat-market-plus-snotty-competitive-girls atmosphere. By and large, the people who work out there have 40 minutes to work out, they have no time to waste, they want to do their thing and get out. So the bankers and brokers show up, sometimes they run, sometimes they lift, but most often they play basketball. Apparently their jobs engender a lot of anger and stress, because for all of the pre- and post-game backslapping and high-fiving, these guys play mean. I have seen foreheads split open. I have heard the story, told to me by the saleswoman who sold me my membership, that one time four guys slammed into the supposedly-shatterproof glass wall hard enough to shatter it, and then complained that the management wouldn’t just let them play around the broken glass.

So these are the guys that De Beers is courting, men hopped up on money and stress and basketball endorphins and good Scotch and a cigar at Christmas, to act out these fantasies of being Big Daddy to the Little Woman while simultaneously being the Dumb Little Kid to the Ball and Chain That is Far Too Good for You.  A lot of these guys have stay-at-home wives, and of course I will never castigate a woman for staying at home, because that’s a deeply personal choice that needs no justification or apology.  But I’ve noticed that some of the gym guys get a real charge out of the idea of bringing home a piece of ice for the little woman, and bragging about it to their basketball crew.  Maybe it is a genuine declaration of love, but sometimes it also sounds like a tacit reminder of just who is earning the money that made that piece of ice possible.  At its worst, it is a real declaration of power, the iron fist in the velvet glove.  Yet with that power, De Beers is also selling a weird kind of anti-power, a winking acknowledgment that the little woman gets to be the real adult in the relationship, because you, bringer-home-of-bacon, you don’t have a clue.  Without her, you’d never find your clean socks, you wouldn’t know if the mortgage had been paid, your kids would be eating frosting out of a can for breakfast, and you wouldn’t even remember your own mother’s birthday!  Of course, you could try to be a little less dependent, a little more self-sufficient, buy your mom a damn birthday card and mail it yourself, but wouldn’t it just be more fun to admit that you’re a fuckup and buy her something pretty instead?

By the time I got up to the street, I should have been in a good lather of righteous indignation, but I wasn’t.  I was depressed.  I was depressed because I’ve never wanted that kind of life for myself, and I never wanted to have that kind of relationship with Lloyd, but when you are surrounded by advertising that caters to this desired demographic, it can make a person feel insignificant.  Or maybe not insignificant; maybe it’s more of a sense of redundancy, or extraneousness.  These ads say to me, we’re looking for the real economic muscle of the city, and we’re going to remind them of their significance in the great scheme of things.  Is our message for you?  No?  Piss off then.

I could be extrapolating a bit.  And I definitely feel a bit arrogant assigning my own motives to men who really, truly might want to give their wives a tennis bracelet because they love them.  I will confess that I once went on a rant like this around Valentine’s Day, when De Beers ran a similar set of irritating ads, to a once-friend of mine.  She looked at me with incredulity and said, “How do you know all this?  Who gave you the right to judge?  Are you the CEO of love?” I thought that was a great line, and was about to laugh and agree with her that I was being ridiculous, when she added, “Maybe you’re just angry because you know that you could never get a guy like that.” Uh, beg pardon?  “Oh, come on.  You know that a guy like that isn’t going to look twice at you.” I couldn’t completely disagree with her—I make lousy trophy-wife material—but I was left bemused by what people will say out loud to each other.

I can’t wait until all this nonsense is over and the Horatio Hornblower ads come back.

Posted by Bakerina at 10:10 PM in anger is an energy • (0) Comments
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