Slamming Ad Culture

This year's fourth annual Schmio Awards -- the mock awards ceremony slamming the advertising industry -- was feisty, naughty and wise. It dealt both a comic sendup and a searing political critique to the ad world, whose own award extravaganza, the Clios, was also held in New York City in April.

"Let's Kick Ads" read the Schmio event poster featuring Reverend Billy, a New York performance artist, and his choir. Rev. Billy's troop is known for delivering kamikaze-like sermons on the evils of commercialism in places like Warner Brothers' superstore. The Reverend awarded a Schmio to Starbucks for "ubiquity" and for their penchant to stiff the South American coffee growers who supply them. "Schmio on you, Starbucks!" shouted the Rev. Billy, who with his pompadour, white suit and clerical collar looked part Elvis, part Jim Baker.

Rev. Billy's wildly bewigged choir stirred up the 450-member audience with a call-and-response chant of "Schmi-oooo!," while the Reverend promised to personally deliver a Schmio to all 101 Starbucks on the island of Manhattan. It seems Starbuck's heard the shouting. Within a few days, under pressure from the international human rights organization Global Exchange, Starbuck's agreed to sell "fair trade" coffee (coffee grown under fair labor conditions) in all their stores. Apparently, Starbuck's PR people did not like the idea of a global boycott nor were they pleased by the sound of "sweatshop" coffee, the term used by Global Exchange's Medea Benjamin at Starbuck's annual shareholders meeting.

Lest you get the impression that the Schmios was just one rollicking guerrilla theater, much serious critique of the ad business was offered. Media heavies such as Ralph Nader, Arianna Huffington, Neil Postman, Amy Goodman and Lewis Lapham took their turn at the podium.

Postman, author of numerous books on the media business, provided the evening's most serious note, honoring Ralph Nader with the first Herbert I. Schiller Award for work against commercial power. Nader, who is garnering significant attention as he travels around the country as the Green Party candidate for president, accepted the award with a blistering critique of commercial society. He described a culture where "kids grow up with a corporate mentality instead of a civic one," resulting in "a nation of spectators and gazers." Nader mentioned that Nike had approached him to do an ad for $25,000, ostensibly to capitalize on his independent image. When he refused, Nader said, Nike got Spike Lee to do the ad.

The Schmios are designed to get the audience to "see" what they often miss: ads fraught with disturbing implications; ads crafted to tickle the senses and get us to nod in consent. When we say, "Yikes, that's so sexist!" we learn at the Schmios that is just what advertisers want. What the Schmios do best is pull ads out of their context and make the viewer take a second look, a process that reveals how ads influence people's cultural politics.

Presenter Arianna Huffington offered perhaps the best advice for fending off creeping commercialism. In a pre-show interview, she said, "Get a life for a start. Life is not about shopping."

There were positive Schmios presented too -- awards for those doing good work in the world of media literacy. One of them was presented by Huffington to Commercial Alert, a coalition that fights such ventures as Channel One, which provides advertising-laden television programming to students, and ZapMe!, an Internet company that provides students online access in exchange for information about their consumer interests. (ZapMe! also won its own Schmio for the commercialization of education.)

Presenting the awards, Huffington imagined a dystopic future of logo-bearing sandboxes and school children subject to endless polls. And she couldn't resist the opportunity to educate the audience on her favorite topic -- the drugging of school children. Huffington cited a one million dollar figure for school kids on anti-depressants and a four million dollar one for youngsters on Ritalin, underscoring the absence of research on what effect these drugs have.

As the advertising industry increasingly sees kids as their cash cow, concern with the commercial influence on children was a major theme of the millennial Schmios. Mention was made of researchers madly trying to figure out how to gain a piece of kids' "mind share." Amy Goodman of Pacifica Radio gave a Schmio to PBS for the commercialization of public broadcasting, criticizing PBS' recent marketing arrangements with Teletubbies and MacDonalds, along with the network's general reluctance to support hard-hitting documentaries.

The winner of the "Creepiest Ad of the Year" was given to NuVeen for an ad that first appeared during the Super Bowl. It featured a paralyzed Christopher Reeves lurching on stage during an award ceremony. Special effects suggested Reeves undergoing a miraculous recovery. And NuVeen, the ad implied, held the secret for such things. But NuVeen is a financial firm, not a biotech company. "That spot appears to be the latest and most awesome version of the ancient snake-oil pitch," said Mark Crispin Miller, a New York University professor who hosted and helped organize the Schmios.

Another ad was deservedly dishonored with the simple title: "Worst Example of Fatherhood." It went to Visa for an ad devoted to the advantages of online shopping. The ad depicts a young couple at home with their baby. With the child's first steps, the mother joyfully cries, "Oh, honey, did you see that?" The father, staring intently at his computer, engrossed in making an online purchase, sighs, "Yeah, can you believe it?" He, of course, refers not to the child but to the discount he just received by using Visa.

Replayed, the ad caused a collective gasp from the Schmios audience. "The Visa ad is a remarkable example of the true perversity of commercial propaganda, which really isn't kidding when it celebrates products over people, business over pleasure and the costly disembodiment of mediated 'interaction' over intimate relations, even at their sweetest," said Miller.

Larry Adelman, co-founder of the Schmios, chimed in: "Nobody criticizes commercials. But commercials are like the air we breathe, the water we swim in. We take them for granted -- and now we see they've gone out of control."

Agreeing, Miller said: "The real problem here is that advertising has moved well beyond its proper confines, colonizing all the space around itself, so that it's everywhere we look, everywhere we go, in every nook and cranny where we try to think."

Adelman and Viveca Greene, the other founder of the awards, gave ABC News a Schmio for the commercialization of journalism. In the network's heavy promotion of Pets.com, Adelman and Greene said ABC failed to mention that Disney, which owns ABC, also owns Pets.com. They presented the award with their own version of the Pets.com mascot: a sock puppet -- though theirs had dirty socks.

For commercialization of the art world, Harper's Editor Lewis Lapham gave a Schmio to a triumvirate, including NYC Mayor Guiliani, the Brooklyn Museum of Art and advertising executive Charles Saatchi for their joint efforts to make a publicity stunt out of the"Sensation" art exhibit.

Rev. Norman Handy, the Baltimore city councilman who launched that city's successful drive to remove billboards for booze and cigarettes from low-income neighborhoods, gave a Schmio to the Eller Outdoor Advertising Co. for the commercialization of public space.

Professor Miller, who moonlights in a rock band, awarded a Schmio for the commercialization of music to the Recording Industry of America for its orchestration of the major lawsuit against the designers of the Napster program.

Further dishonorable awards included the "Most Cynical Appeal to Feminism" (Big Red Gum); "Sex in Advertising: The Ted Bundy Award" (Wendy's); and the "The John Rocker Prize for the Most Offensive ad of 1999" (the Just for Feet/Nike ad).

Although the Schmios serve to remind us that we are suffocating in advertising culture, they also reminded us that there is cause for celebration. Three media activists behind the drive to get lower-power radio approved by the FCC on a non-commercial basis were honored. NYU law professor and eminent civil libertarian Burt Neuborne gave the award to Greg Ruggiero, Peter Frank and Cheryl Leanza of the Media Access Project.

In the end, the Schmios were an attempt at the kind of fun that Bertolt Brecht would have enjoyed. Brecht argued that theater should call attention to its own artifice and create a distance between the audience and the "art," so as to draw attention to how theater reproduces society, which Brecht argued is itself a construction. By showing theater's artifice, Brecht wanted to politicize his audience and instigate social change. In some ways, that too is the spirit of the Schmios. By exposing the machinery of commercialism and capitalism, by rewarding efforts to de-cloak artifice, the Schmios challenge us to think.

"The solution here must be political as well as intellectual, entailing grass-roots organizing, mass pressure and eventual legislation, both national and local," Miller said, summing up the challenge. He concluded: "Such work is underway all over, so it's pretty likely that we'll keep on handing out 'good' Schmios."

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