Stay Free! Magazine

The Inversion of Subversion

Leslie Savan, Villiage Voice columnist and author of The Sponsored Life, is one of the funniest and most insightful critics of advertising. I was quite thrilled to get to talk to her by phone from Toronto, where, as a member of NEGATIVLAND, I was participating in the Plunderpalooza Festival. When I spoke to Leslie, my experiences in Toronto were very much on my mind.--Mark Hosler

MARK: Canada's mass media seems to be open to more viewpoints. Plunderpalooza is even being widely covered in the mainstream media. I just agreed to appear on a Canadian TV show but I was really conflicted about it. I worried about the context, how the surrounding advertising would affect what I was saying. And where do we draw the line? Certain ideas will become trivialized. Folks here mentioned to me that when you came through and did your book tour for Sponsored Life, you did the usual media places . . .

LESLIE: I didn't spend too long thinking about whether I was going to do it, though. I just did it. You never know for sure but I think when you add up all the pros and cons, there are going to be some people you're going to reach who you wouldn't have reached otherwise. For many people, possibly the majority, you're right: the commercials and TV in general sucks the protest out of anything you're going to say. It negates it, it makes it part of the carnival of television. Television encompasses its own critique, its own protest, and all the anti-TV and anti-commercial messages that do seep in become part of the carnival.

MARK: It made me think. Television, which exists purely to deliver the audience to the advertisers, can just say, "Sure, we'll take anything! We'll even have you talking against the ads on TV and then we'll run an ad and it's great if it gets those people to watch."

Leslie Savan LESLIE: Some of them are savvy enough to know that the more they sponsor messages that attack them, the cooler they seem. They're amoebae; they can constantly take in anything and come off seeming hip. And kids--who don't really give a shit about a lot of this, most people don't--are going to have exactly that reaction: Hey cool, so what.

MARK: When I first watched Beavis & Butt-head, I was tickled that they were mocking all these videos and mocking MTV and the average moronic MTV viewer. But of course I'd been had; I'd been watching MTV like they wanted me to!

LESLIE: Right, and that's what happens. The form itself--the videos, the built-in critique of the videos, and the way the audience perceives that critique--starts to evolve so that becomes the new standard. When you watch TV, you still have that critique of the videos, but you're nonetheless still watching TV, you're still buying the records. You're just doing it with a more jaundiced eye and that jaundice becomes part of the experience of being the postmodern/cool video watcher. The damage goes beyond the financial transactions that are maintained or enhanced by this critique. When we get so jaundiced you almost can't criticize anything. No one really cares. But beyond that, I think it's probably still worth being on TV to say this. You're still going to reach some people who by some quirk of evolution are not going with the crowd.

MARK: But I never want to ignore how what I make gets to you is connected to what I'm saying and doing. They are linked. And that's why I was concerned about it. I am really curious to see a copy of the show with the commercials in it. I want to see the context. I mean I'm willing to be in Rolling Stone or Spin, I'm willing to be in there with those Absolut vodka ads, Pioneer's stereo ads . . .

LESLIE: And those cases are as strong as television because they're more focused. They go right to the audience, better than spots on a TV show, which are for a more general audience. What I was starting to say about promoting my book, and how paradoxical it is to promote a book that is partly about the evils of promotion, is that we live in a very capitalist society. We're born into it--to some extent, we are corrupt to begin with. It's very hard to be pure, and I don't think it's even desirable to be totally pure. I mean, how much can you lock yourself off?

MARK: A guy on the show today was characterizing me as an anarchist and I said, "Well, no, I certainly have some leanings that way, but you might say I'm a benevolent capitalist." I run my own business with my friends.

LESLIE: In some ways, we're all a little corrupt. You know how we all have good bacteria and bad bacteria? If you bombard your body with antibiotics, that only creates stronger bad bacteria. They become immune to the antibiotics. You also destroy some of the good bacteria. In any case, we need bacteria as much as we don't need it. You have to live with some of that because it actually keeps you strong. You have to be able to live in a capitalist society. To survive and be heard, if you're an artist at all, you want an audience. That's sort of an age-old question of purity versus corruption, and we have to start from the point that we're already a little corrupt by nature of being in this.

MARK: If you just read one article in your book, you get the impression that you hate all this shit. But as I read the whole book, it occurred to me that you must have to watch a lot of television to write this column. In one article you mention that you bought something from the Home Shopping Network.

LESLIE: Yeah (laughs).

MARK: And I got the sense that it was more complicated than my first impression, that you actually like some of these shows.

LESLIE: Oh yeah, definitely. I'm not going to call it a love-hate relationship because I don't love commercialism. It's more like . . . what's the right word . . . a hate-need relationship or a hate-addiction relationship. We grow up with TV, most of our leisure time is spent with it, so of course it becomes part of us, we become part of it. There's a symbiosis that goes on throughout our whole lives. Sometimes there will be something on I like, it could be some good quality TV--it does exist. There was a good documentary of Theodore Roosevelt last night, and I really like some of the Comedy Central shows (Dr. Katz, The Larry Sanders Show on HBO). But I can also watch total trash, including infomercials. That's what I mean about corruption. I grew up shopping, I grew up at malls. And the shopping and the TV are just two sides of the same coin. The whole point is to go shopping so you can't exorcise that from yourself easily. Anyway, I think it's more interesting to explore the twisted, distorted, corrupt, sick relationship we have with television than to just condemn it. You can't really criticize something like commercialism--which is soooo vast--by just standing up on a pedestal and pointing a finger. You have to acknowledge its power. Otherwise you're not a worthy enemy. To know why it can have power over other people, you have to know its sway over you.

MARK: The ads in your book actually end up reflecting sort of a parallel universe of our world. I hadn't thought of the degree to which so many historical events work their way into advertising, stuff to do with the Berlin Wall coming down and the invasion of Iraq. If all you did is look at ads throughout the '80s you'd get a fairly interesting idea of what was going on globally.

LESLIE: Commercials contain their own distorted history. Sometimes it's really obvious, like the Pepsi ads with the fall of the Berlin Wall. But most of the time they're a lot more subtle and that's where it becomes interesting, to dig out the hidden politics behind a commercial.

MARK: On the plane over here, they were showing a documentary about the making of a Puma commercial. It's all about how they're trying to come up with an all-new, in-your-face aggressive campaign to sell the product in England. The director--who's dressed all in black, with a shaved head, like some hip, downtown New York art guy--is spouting off, saying, "It's not what the commercial's about, we want to convey the attitude and the lifestyle 'cause these guys LIVE this life." And of course it's illustrated by constantly showing clips from the commercial. So, essentially, I was being shown this elongated ad for Puma on the airplane--that's weird enough--and then I'm also thinking how amazing it is that this is news now. This is something that is supposed to interest a person on the way to Toronto.

LESLIE: That sort of thing has been going on for ten or fifteen years. I'm sure the director guy thinks he's very creative and very hip, but everything he said is completely hackneyed. "Oh, it's about attitude, it's about the lifestyle." You know, what a cliché, first of all. No, this is not about the product, no, no, we're so much cooler than that. He's as programmed as the people he's trying to program. That's just one part of why it's all so pathetic and sad--so much energy, time, money, and talent is used to program other people to not only buy the product but also to believe this kind of lie ("Oh, it's the attitude and you can have this attitude too"). Then people only want that attitude. There are so many things you don't get when you're just living by attitude and style. You don't learn content, you don't learn the politics that makes this thing going, you're so dazzled by the shiny objects before your eyes just like an infant is. That whole system keeps us infantalized and our horizons just start to roll in.

MARK: I talked to you about Wieden & Kennedy approaching us to do a commercial for Miller Genuine Draft . . .

LESLIE: That's a great example of all this.

Mark Hosler MARK: It was so amazing to talk to these guys. Because we all--you do, I do--we all rationalize how we live our lives in order to be halfway sane and to be able to look ourselves in the mirror. And it was amazing to me to talk to these guys and hear how much they bought into this advertising executive lifestyle they have. They do have to believe. They may be cynical, but on another level, they are more infected and messed up inside their souls by having to live this lifestyle.

LESLIE: A lot of them feel guilty about it. They don't want to do what they do but the money's so good, they have to support a family, whatever the rationalization. Some of them hate themselves for it and then try and alleviate that by doing some pro bono work, something for a good cause. That's a really common pattern. Then there are others in advertising who just truly believe in it. They feel creative; that's their word for themselves--"creatives." That makes them feel like they're good guys. A creative. It sounds like being an artist or an angel. And then they do get a lot of feedback from people, not just from their friends, who say, "Oh, commercials are the best things on TV. They're so skilled." And yeah, it is a skill--not an art, though they'd like to believe that. So that's one way they protect themselves. At the same time a lot of them claim that they're not altering society, that they're just reflecting it. That's the other age-old argument. Anybody who believes anything is on a one-way street is just ridiculous. Yes, advertising reflects who we are. There's no doubt about it. But it also shapes who we are. It's this false dichotomy that it has to be either one or the other. That kind of either/or dichotomy is something that TV and a lot of media propagates. You're a villain or a victim, you're a winner or a loser.

MARK: One of the main goals of advertising is simply to make people familiar with a brand name. So when you go into the store, you're more inclined to buy that name. It doesn't matter what light it was painted in.

LESLIE: That's absolutely true. Neither Pepsi or Coke or any of them have had anything new to say for years. There's a whole chunk of advertising that's just there to keep their name in the game. You may not remember what they said but you remember they're a player.

MARK: Do you think this is playing on a normal human quality? We like things that are familiar. It used to be that we lived in little villages and what was familiar was local. Now we live in a world where we're all getting the same information through the box in our living room; it's the same human quality but it's being appealed to in a different way.

LESLIE: Absolutely. People seek out the familiar. Starting from birth, you seek out your mother's voice over other voices.

MARK: Give me that breast!

LESLIE: And then you go from there to the village to the global society that's all drinking the same brand or two. Pepsi and Coke are not necessarily evil for exploiting that particular tendency because we thrive as a human species doing that. What amazes me, though, is that there are some people who are sort of modern day tribesman who like to be in crowds, who like to look the same, drink the same, shop the same, yell for the same team. Then there are people who bristle at that. And I'm someone who bristles at that.

MARK: You're a bristler!

LESLIE: In kindergarten, when we had to sing songs, I couldn't bear to sing with the group of kids. It made me feel like I was going to get lost in a mob or killed or something.

MARK: I'm the same way. Even when I've been in protests, I'm so uncomfortable with joining in and shouting a slogan, even if I believe in the cause. If it's just part of human nature, isn't part of what you're arguing for contrary to human nature?

LESLIE: Yes, but I'm human. I have all sorts of proof, and you're human, too, as are other people who think they aren't part of the group. So it's also human nature to break away from the crowd and to hate and fear it.

MARK: I think if you got people to be honest about how they feel, all those people that look like they're having a great time at that dance club out in New York would say they're aliens; that they're not quite part of the human race. I think this feeling is pretty universal.

LESLIE: People don't use the word "conformity" anymore, but that's what it's about. The thing that makes advertising's role in this more insidious than "Oh, we're just reflecting human nature" is the incredible amount of power and money they have to exploit human nature. They also have the power of repetition, which is what commercials do. Some of them say no one commercial makes an impression. (An impression is when a viewer has seen it at least six times.) Repetition is also the key to human learning. And what advertisers have that we don't have is the ability to repeat their message over and over again: Pepsi, Buy Pepsi, Here's Pepsi, We're Pepsi. I often think, "Oh, should I write about AT&T again? Didn't I say that before?" Or, "How many times can I write a column about the evils of the free-market system?" Then I remind myself how often those ads have run, maybe 5,000 times. And another campaign is saying more or less the same thing for another product. You know, it's such an unequal playing field that I can justify saying it. I don't want to be too repetitive, of course, because it's hard on me and I suppose on the reader. But if the ideas bear repetition then I think those things need to be repeated, because ideas at some point can become principals.

MARK: People are always asking us, "Don't you think you're telling people things they already know?" And we respond, "Well, intelligence is temporary."

LESLIE: That's a great insight. Sometimes it's just a flash and you forget it the next moment. You go on eating or sleeping or whatever. Intelligence can interfere with that, too. There's no evolutionary advantage for intelligence to survive in some cases.

MARK: After Dispepsi [Negativland's most recent CD], we're not going to go on and do a DisNike or a DisMicrosoft. We correctly guessed that focusing on one company would make it more intriguing and interesting to writers . . .

LESLIE: By the principle of familiarity.

MARK: Oh yeah, but on the other hand I don't know how much I want to stay immersed in this or live this lifestyle where I have to keep sucking down all the media to be able to respond to it. There is a project we've been thinking of doing about the desert, because I love the desert in the Southwest so much.

LESLIE: When you're so steeped in this junk culture, whether it be love/hate/need--whatever the relationship, you want the opposite, you want incredible simplicity and the possibility of something more spiritual, of something like the desert.

MARK: I'm the only person this is true for in Negativland, but about two years ago I just kinda stopped watching TV. In the last year and a half, I've literally watched about four hours of television. Talking with my friends, who all say they don't watch TV, stuff comes up in conversation all the time where I don't know what they're talking about. On the one hand, I'm realizing I kinda like my life better, in terms of the way it feels inside my head and spirit, but I also know that the more years go by, the more I do become an alien, this freak where I can't relate to anybody because I don't know what was so funny on last night's Seinfeld. In fact, I've never even watched Seinfeld.

LESLIE: And Seinfeld, for many people, including myself, is a whole way of looking at the world. I did start watching more TV to write about it but that was just an excuse. Now that I'm not writing about commercials as much, I still watch it. I think in many ways watching TV is the opposite of having a spiritual life. It's pretty hard to have a soul with depth and many nooks and crannies if you spend three, four hours a night watching TV. Or if you just have it on in the background. It's the opposite of silence. To be entertained all the time, to have your every whim responded to . . .

soda crapMARK: If you have a constant external chatter going on it's very difficult to hear your own internal chatter. It's like what I said before about worrying that my ideas will be flattened out on TV; conversely, you could say watching television flattens out the minds of the people watching it all the time.

LESLIE: Well, yeah. And this is sort of what I'm starting to write about, about language and how we talk. And how people are talking like the various media they watch or listen to. The media reflects a certain way of talking and it flattens it out. So we're all creating a new lingua franca where we all know what we mean, it's very media savvy, it's very ironic and hip and all that.

MARK: So if I'm out of the loop for too many years I'm not going to understand what people are referring to.

LESLIE: In terms of content, yes, you might not know about The Simpsons or Seinfeld. But I think everybody starts to pick up the media clichés of the day. Your friends use them, we all use them, whether it's "yada yada yada" or "I don't think so."

MARK: Everyone I know used the Homer Simpson exclamation "doh!" That's the only show I miss.

LESLIE: Yeah, it's brilliant. When you say "doh," you're honoring Homer Simpson in a way. But--and I don't want to put too strong a "but" on it--but . . .

MARK: Put a weak and flabby "butt."

LESLIE: But it is taking on the media way of being. In a way, it's a bad example because it's not creepy enough. Anyway, back to what you were saying about the desert. There's a piece in the book that talks about how commercials are trying to be more spiritual, as if they can smell their lack of spirituality and how that's turning people off. And how people are sick of the lack of spirituality in themselves. Well, the commercials will give them that, too. They'll give them the fun, the excitement, the flash, and now they'll give them the spirituality.

MARK: In car ads, you endlessly see the Southwest landscape. As if everyone buying these cars is going to be driving them around Monument Valley.

LESLIE: Right, the desert is God's prop. Around 1990, I wrote about some of the other props (the sky and clouds) because with the change of the decade--the decade before the millennium--there was a flurry of these spiritual ads. They kinda died down but they're starting to come back now with a different tilt and I think they're going to build up until the year or two after 2000.

There are so many ways for commercialism to get around the barriers that we put up against it. One way is that anti-ad ad (the ad that tells you you're a rebel, or Wieden & Kennedy wanting you to do an ad for Miller). The built-in critique against the whole system is within the ad... The other way is to have the built-in antidote to commercialism and materialism--the spiritual life. There's probably a few other ways but those are the two main poles of built-in negation of advertising that advertising offers in order to get a deeper association with us.

MARK: Earlier you were saying that anyone coming out saying something critical is being absorbed. With the work that we did, part of me feels like "Bzzzzt! Game over," we're fucked, they've completely absorbed our language and our attitude as more of advertising and more of style. I certainly could imagine stuff on our record being in a Pepsi ad in just a couple of years, if that.

LESLIE: No, now!

MARK: Well, we were aware of that and we were playing with that in the work, but part of me felt very depressed. I just don't know where we can go with our art because they're just absorbing it.

LESLIE: Yeah, but there's nothing you can do about that. You can't not have a critique just because it's going to get absorbed. The world is just so complex. There's always going to be 10,000 million things going on at once and they're not going to work out like any individual wants them to.

MARK: I know. But it certainly gives me pause for thinking. Years and years ago just the act of appropriating anything, regardless of what we were trying to say, was exciting and new and transgressive. It felt like it meant something. It doesn't feel that way at all now, which is why we filled up a whole record with chunks of all these ads, something you never hear on records anymore. We were thinking, "What will that be like?" What will it do to the head of the listener when they keep hearing these wacky audio art pieces that keep mentioning one product over and over again? I actually hoped that two-thirds of the way through the record that people start to get sick of hearing about Pepsi.

LESLIE: Transgression always has to move forward because the last thing that was transgressed doesn't shock anymore. I was just reading about "transgressive" S&M photography and I fail to see how that is transgressive anymore. It's really, really hard but there are ways to not just react to the last thing and find something else.

MARK: I don't sit around and try to come up with ways to be transgressive, it's not contrived like that. But it's true that I can see, looking back, I didn't know where it would go. I'm also realizing that spending a lifetime just reacting in opposition to things gets to be sorta stifling to your personal growth. I'd like to be for things rather than against things. Then again, with the anti-corporate ads, in some ways you could almost look at it in a positive way. They're now to the point where they're saying, "You know, we just can't lie to these people anymore." I mean, they may not literally be saying this but if you look at ads around the turn of the century, and the way they evolved, they were always trying to keep one step ahead. And I see this trend as interesting because it seems to be indicating an acknowledgment.

LESLIE: I don't think it's positive for them to say, "We know that you know," because the real point is in their action. They're still doing it, they're still putting the money behind saying, "We know that you know."

MARK: But I think it indicates that the climate has changed a little bit. Their perception is that people are more savvy than they used to be.

LESLIE: Some people may say corporations are bad or whatever . . . but most people don't really think corporations are bad. They think corporations are their friends. The corporations are the entities responsible for giving them what they most want in the world--entertainment.

MARK: A cheap VCR.

LESLIE: Yeah, they want to get their baseball cap and wear it backwards and they want the familiar logo on it. They want fun and meaning in the right sneakers, and they want to watch their celebrities and identify and care about them. The corporations are responsible for all that and I think when they say "We know that you know," that's just a way for them to buddy up and say we're an empathetic friend.

Years ago I was in Portland and I went to lunch with people from Wieden & Kennedy and another local agency and we were talking about the same thing--how savvy ads are, how they're saying, "We know that you know," and where do they go from there. And these ad guys said, "We go to simplicity. Utter simplicity."

MARK: (laughs) The new minimalism!

LESLIE: Yeah, there's always a new minimalism! It's a Ping-Pong thing, one trend triggers the opposite, but it also parallels that spiritual thing. Ad people are finding it in themselves, so they go through the simple trend for a while but then they go back to something else, and then they find a third way.

Beavis & Butt-head at the Macy's ParadeMARK: I think you're right in a way, but I do think this trend with antiadvertising has introduced an element into the mix that isn't going to go away. It is a weird acknowledgment of what's really going on. A friend of mine who's an organic farmer was telling me he thinks it's good because it means the lie that they all have to tell to all of us to keep us believing in this whole way of life is becoming bigger and bigger. And the bigger the lie gets, the more likely some day more people will question it.

LESLIE: I don't know about that. It sounds good but I think they practically get into your DNA with it. Again, this goes back to bacteria. We can throw the antibiotics at them or the anti-commercial messages at them and they incorporate it and become immune to it. They've surmounted it, they've incorporated the critique so they can go beyond that. The critique has to rise to another level and then they'll incorporate that. They just become bigger and bigger and more powerful.

MARK: I guess I'm just realizing that I don't know what the next level of critique is at this point. They're doing such a damn good job of absorbing it! I mean, I realize it's an inevitable process. You can look back to the '60s and the '70s. It always gets absorbed.

LESLIE: Yeah, Mercedes-Benz is doing Janis Joplin.

MARK: One different aspect, though, is that instead of just absorbing different fringey, oppositional ideas, they're absorbing the very idea of opposition, no matter what form it takes. And I think that is a quantum leap. So whatever form it takes, no problem, "Ok, whatever, we can absorb that."

LESLIE: Right. To them it's just another thing that can be part of the commercial. They really have no respect for the opposition in that sense. But they have the respect that one has toward an enemy. Like what I was saying about knowing TV if you're going to critique it; they have to know the enemy, the deep-seated mistrust of corporate America. And they know that better than we know them.

As far as going beyond the anti-corporate ad, a lot of ads now are just so artful and well produced and powerful that they just make all sorts of questioning irrelevant. You just sit back and say, "Wow, what a good thirty seconds I just had!" And because they're not pushing their product hard (like Nike ads), there's no question to be had. You just have to say "Damn, I'm impressed." That's one way of avoiding the whole question for them. And it works.

MARK: Do you ever think about the folks who'll be reading your column and thinking, "Well, you have a good point but this is so depressing. We can't stop it, so what's the point?"

LESLIE: I think that way myself sometimes!

MARK: It's obviously not going to change. There are more ads every year. There are stickers on apples advertising the Liar, Liar video. It's like, oh my god, they thought of another way!

LESLIE: They always do. They've put ads in the tiles of supermarket floors. And three football-sized satellites will carry ads. Everything from the tiny little space on apples to the moon can be turned into an ad. And yeah, that does increase. And that is depressing . . .

MARK: The only thing I can realistically suggest is for people to be aware of it.

LESLIE: It's the same thing a shrink says about overcoming a neurosis: first you have to be aware of it and then its power over you starts to dissipate. It's slow and gradual but it does. I personally have two reactions. One, I can watch TV, especially ugly TV like Hard Copy, and just get this feeling of revulsion and anger. I want to turn it off and put a wall up between me and a lot of the media. And sometimes that's not a bad idea. The other thing that helps is to write or talk about it. That's part of that awareness thing... Anyway, what I'd like to see is people transform that anger or that depression into some type of political action--some form of activism where you get into the real stuff that's going on. There was an interesting show on PBS the other day called Affluenza. The style wasn't hip or flashy and, at first, part of me wanted it in that trite, hip way. But I'm glad they didn't do that. What they did instead was build up a good case for how much we waste resources, how much we shop. And then it showed one way of being an activist--voluntary simplicity is one way but also harvesting food from restaurants or being an environmentalist. None of these things are terribly new--that's not the point. The point is that you actually do something in the real world. It's not about media or style or image or attitude or being a snotty, ironic artiste, but actually doing something that has a political grounding in that widest sense of "politics." That's a way of exorcising some of this crap.

MARK: With Negativland, if it has affected one person positively, it's me. I don't know how anything is going to turn out. But in the process of working on ideas and seeing them out, I learn so much. One unexpected thing has happened with friends of mine who've been listening to Dispepsi. They say that because we've appropriated Pepsi's sounds, their jingles, their iconography, that every time they see a Pepsi ad, they think about our record. It's like they're marketing our record. And that could be the single, coolest side effect of this project.

LESLIE: You've switched that balance of power.

MARK: Yeah, and now it appears they're not going to do anything about it. It's in this week's Entertainment Weekly.

LESLIE: If they did anything, they'd look so square and evil. It's the old political gamble. If you have two candidates in a campaign, the more you publicize your opponent's criticism of you by saying it's not true, you give them more weight. That's Politics 101. It sounds so trite but the other way of getting around this depression is to just have a sense of humor about it. I don't mean laugh with it or laugh it off but look at the crazy insanity of it and find it funny.

MARK: I can, actually. If I have any sort of spirituality I'd say I'm a crappy Buddhist. I read Buddhist books all the time and occasionally meditate and it always help me get a bigger perspective... There's one other thing I want to ask you: How does what you're writing about inform your choices on your own lifestyle, what you buy, where your money goes, what you eat? Do you invest?

LESLIE: I used to actually get a sick kick out of shopping. I don't anymore, I avoid shopping whenever I can.

MARK: When I go into Home Base--which is this chain of unbelievably huge hardware stores--there are so many things that I feel my brain is literally being crushed. I cower. And all I want is a roll of duct tape.

LESLIE: It's crazy. If I go into Kmart or some place like it, I'll get dizzy, I have physical reactions. I tend to shop for food a lot, though I don't buy many brand things. It's not that I'm consciously trying not to buy them (although there are some companies I avoid); it's that I just don't want those products. They're too processed or fake. Clothing: I don't buy a lot, although I did buy some things somewhere lately . . . (laughs) oh, it was Ann Taylor! It's embarrassing to say that but I like some of their clothes, they're good, basic clothes, and there was a big sale. Also, since I was a teenager, I've liked thrift shops and second-hand shops... In terms of investments, first of all, I don't have any money to invest so it hasn't been a question. At the Voice, they have a 401k plan and sometimes I think, "Gee, if I invested, I would've had money by now." But then to invest in those companies is to be a part of this free-market system where you don't know about those companies, what shitheads they are, etc. It goes back to the symbiosis between commercial and us. We're feeding it from different ends.

Suggested Reading

Where the Suckers Moon: The Life and Death of an Advertising Campaign, by Randall Rothenberg, 1995. An in-depth and engaging as hell behind-the-scenes look at the creation of Suburu's early '90s ad campaign. Wieden & Kennedy, the "aggressively hip" ad agency that made a name for itself with Nike, is at the helm, steering your basic no-frills anti-ad ad campaign.

The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism, by Tom Frank, 1997. Mr. Frank shows how the advertising industry in the '60s got radical and started to incorporate consumer resistance, and the rebellious flavor of the counterculture, rather than fighting it. Though Tom has covered these grounds before in The Baffler (which he edits) and other fine publications, Conquest is clearer, less adrenaline-fueled than his essays, and provides a much-needed historical perspective.

Under the Radar: Talking to Today's Cynical Consumer, by Jonathan Bond and Richard Kirshenbaum, 1997. Business books are usually so shoddily written and vapid, few are worth reading. But these guys are frighteningly sharp. They've not only got an instinctive grasp of consumer cynicism--and how to break through it--but a rare ability to articulate and communicate it. Yes, scary. This book made me nostalgic for the good old days when there was real hope--back before the Unibomber was caught.

The Sponsored Life, by Leslie Savan, 1994. Duh.

Street Trends: How Today's Alternative Youth Cultures are Creating Tomorrow's Mainstream Markets, by Janine Lopiano-Misdom and Joanne De Luca, 1997. Geared to marketers, this is by a couple "cool hunters" who help corporate America speak to the kids. (Sample chapter heading: "It's cool to suck.")