Sunday, July 19, 2009


1960s advertisements reflected the empire at the crossroads. Pop and Op Art and Carnaby Street fashions entered the living room, and grabbed the eyes of younger consumers. While oldsters chuckled to Alan King on Sullivan, the kids waited for the new pop groups, and the ads straddled this split. Did you drink Sanka or Tang? Did you wear a polka dot plastic mac? Or maybe a leopard skin pillbox hat?

Tang, we were assured, was the breakfast of astronauts. If we hoped to beat the Russians to the moon we'd better start drinking it by the boatload! Lots of powdered foods could survive the trip to outer space, or an extended stay in a fallout shelter. Tang, and Kool-ade and Pixie Stix and Fizzies were the food of the future! Especially if we were forced to live underground for any period of time.

Volkswagen changed everything. Their advertisements stood apart from the hard sell, old school commercials. They welcomed a new sensibility that included irony, self-deprecation and a "cool" sense of humor. "Think Small," they said, and "Live Below Your Means." One ad caught our attention with a single word, "Lemon." Oldsters were puzzled.

Old fashioned ads still existed, of course. This soul-killing suburban coffee problem begged for satire. What did Harvey want? Would the wife ever satisfy his gray flannel dreams? God forbid, would the wife ever satisfy her own? We heard she later ran off to a commune in New Mexico to eat peyote and seek the perfect orgasm. Maybe Harvey learned to make his own damn coffee.

Alka Seltzer pummeled our solar plexus with a cool ad featuring the T-Bones performing the slinky rock hit "No Matter What Shape Your Stomach's In." This was new and different--and miles from Madge with the dishwater hands. Catchy, it anticipated MTV jump cuts.

Sexy stewardesses in mod gear promised trips to exotic locales with a "coffee, tea, or me?" insouciance and long, long legs. They were assembled in secret factories run by James Bond, or possibly Hugh Hefner, whose seedy mid-western version of sexual freedom meant wearing a bathrobe all day long. At this point, women's liberation was still a distant land with no direct flights. Fasten your seatbelts!

These were the men flying those planes. They were weekend swingers, and they wanted to look cool. Bell bottoms were cool, right? Right? Just look at these squares.

Vietnam was raging, the cities were in flames, and wife-beating was just a punch-line (pun intended) in Alan King's stand-up comedy routine. Battered wives had yet to make it to the movie-of-the-week. Subliminal advertising was a reality that hadn't yet been exposed. People were too busy fighting over cigarettes and keeping up with the Joneses. America was invincible, an empire on a power ride that included the cold war and the space race, Cadillacs and martini lunches served by black guys in white jackets. We'd rather fight than switch!

No comment.

Sexist? So what's wrong with sexy? An unforgettable ad for...who cares? Take it off. Take it all off!

But the empire needed defending, and that meant training the little ones ahead of time. We would have to police the world and keep it safe for democracy and capitalism. Hearts and minds, right? The cornucopia of endless products would keep us fat and happy as long as we all pitched in and defended our borders from the Vietnamese, the Latin Americans, and those nasty and godless superpowers.

The barbarians were at the gate, but we could stave them off with the help of Mattel and Hasbro--toy manufacturers who kept our wits sharp and our senses battle-ready. All we needed was our GI Joe dolls, er, "action figures." That, and a little napalm.

Twiggy had "the Look." She was the quintessential frail bird of the sixties with an anorexic boyish body and eyes that could shame a Keene painting. She was the English waif, the woman-as-child, the fragile super model whose eyes followed you around the room. Or did they? Were they, like television itself, glittering with potential but more often just vacuous portals to nothingness? Did they see the changes on the horizon? Let's end on a mystery.

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