Glory and BBQ Sauce in Athens

The vile Dallas-based restaurant chain Chili's launched a new national TV ad campaign in time for the Olympics. Entitled "Inspiration" and produced by the Austin agency GSD&M, it features former Olympic gymnastics champion Dominique Dawes, a plate of ribs, and some new insight into the nature of sport and the quest for glory. Here's how the ad's climax reads in the script:

Cut to Dominique performing on the beam.

Voice-over: What's the inspiration for Dominique Dawes...
Cut to footage of delicious-looking baby back ribs being prepared on the grill.

Voice-over: land that perfect 10?
Cut to Dominique flipping in the air and sticking the landing.

Dominique: Barbecue sauce!
Barbecue sauce.

The gods up in Olympus must be locked up somewhere, gagged and bound; otherwise Athens last week would have been destroyed in retaliation. Or Austin, anyway. Surely it's heresy to suggest, in the week the games return to their ancestral home, that inspiration — that feeling that the ancient Greeks believed made a man holier than a priest, when it was given to him by the gods — can be a shitty plate of factory-processed ribs. The Muses must be vomiting into their cloaks and pawning their lyres for firearms: This aggression, you would think, cannot stand.

Except for one thing. The Muses themselves have already sold out. Since last October they've been working for an ad agency called Lancaster Group, which put all nine of them to work pimping a new fragrance line called "Joop! Muse" for the famous German perfume company. The participation of such old-world celebrities as Calliope (Epic Poetry), Erato (Love Poetry) and Melpomene (Tragedy) is only implied, however, as the actual muses don't get any face time in the European ads. In the modern, televised legend, the Joop! muses are replaced by Hungarian model Reka Ebergeni, who is naked except for a white scarf on her head and appears over the caption, "You are the inspiration."

Industry observers, and even some mainstream journalists, have commented at some length in the last decade or so on the increasingly desperate struggle of advertisers to find new physical spaces on which to place ads. With the old spaces — 30-second TV commercial slots, "book" ads in magazines and newspapers, billboards, and even standard Internet banners — more or less saturated to the limit of human tolerance, agencies needed to find new surfaces.

So they created them, placing particular emphasis on the so-called "zap-proof" techniques of placing ads directly inside the content, so that consumers could not change the channel or avert their eyes. They used defense technologies like the video-painting system "L-vis" to paste virtual ads onto stadium walls, tennis courts, and even moving formula cars. They tried to turn first base at Yankee stadium into a Spiderman plug; they paid celebrities to mention certain brands in talk-show interviews; and they buried anti-drug messages, fast-food themes and even feature-length stories about cars and video game characters in sitcoms, Hollywood movies, and on at least a few occasions, even television news.

This cancerous billboardizing of the physical landscape is noticed by most sane people and is even occasionally the subject of a strident editorial in major daily newspapers ("Seeing is no longer believing," hissed the Montreal Gazette). But what has been less commented upon is the phenomenon at work in the Chili's and Joop! ads: the conquering of once-virgin territories in the emotional landscape of human beings.

Just as there are no more new slots to create for 30-second ads on broadcast TV, there is no longer any room left to paste ads in prime real estate locales of the human brain like hungry, thirsty, lonely, vain, greedy, horny and my penis is too small. So advertisers have had to move farther and farther afield, away from mere physical urges and into more sparsely settled and less arable neurological regions of complex emotion and spiritual instinct. The result is usually a rhetorical non sequitur, a commercial message with absolutely no logical connection to the product: Advertisers have put plugs on AIDS/disaster victim compassion (Benetton), sexual identity confusion (those Heineken ads where men accidentally touch each other on the couch), even revolutionary politics (from yet another classical God on the rolls, Nike). Now you no longer buy only when you feel hungry or thirsty or too slow on the highway; you buy when you see a homeless person or when you feel concerned about greenhouse gases. By literally branding every concept in existence, advertisers turn the journey of the human intellect from birth to death into an endless purchasing drama, a corridor in a perpetual mall.

The longer this goes on, of course, the harder it is for audiences to remember the real emotions they're being sold. Once people start to permanently identify a concept like fear of cancer with Lance Armstrong zooming past a leukemia clinic in Nikes or standing, recovered, in a Bristol-Myers lab, it becomes hard to sell anybody anything by making them afraid of cancer — because cancer isn't scary anymore.

That forces advertisers to change their strategy. Instead of getting people to identify the brand with the emotion, they have to actually tell them what the emotion is first, and then get them to identify the brand with it. The result is a process not unlike fossilization, where the biological thing is replaced over time with a stone copy.

You can see that process at work with “inspiration,” which came full circle with the Dawes/Chili's ad. It took ad agencies a while to get this one right. There have been some abortive attempts in recent years to slay inspiration. One of note last year was a campaign dreamed up by the Richards Group for Home Depot, which apparently was branching out after running out of NASCAR drivers to wallpaper. A series of ads hyped Home Depot's new Color Centers and featured the tagline, "You have the inspiration. Now we have the solution."

"We're looking to inspire people to do more with paint," said David Sandor, the company's PR director at the time. Which was a good idea, except that they screwed it up: The paint should actually have been the inspiration, not an accessory to it.

A key advance in the right direction was made earlier this year by a Dutch company, Van den Bergh Foods. To promote dairy products in its Calve Foods line, it dragged Kool from Kool and the Gang out of the "Where are they now?" drawer and shoved him into a surreal ad broadcast in the Netherlands. The ad shows Kool standing in a modest Amsterdam apartment in what appears to be a state of amnesic derangement; he is smiling and happily listening, on a vintage boom box in the kitchen, to a recording of his own song, "Fresh." A few steps away, his black, English-speaking wife looks on disapprovingly as you hear the lyrics: "She's fresh... She's so fresh..."

"Baby," she says, frowning, "who gave you the inspiration for this song?"

He snaps awake, panicked. "Oh, you fresh!" he says. "You fresh! You the freshest one out there!"

Relieved, she hugs him. Then they close up on Kool's face and he's gritting his teeth like he just got away with something. Next comes the logo and the voice-over: YOFRESH!, the Calve foods milk product.

This is a great ad. It scores on some of the great eternal themes of product marketing. It brutally humiliates a celebrity who once had it all, proving the power of the brand. It appropriates a familiar piece of popular culture, changing its original meaning (an increasingly common technique, symbolized most cruelly of late by Wrangler Jeans turning CCR's protest song "Fortunate Son" into a patriotic ballad). The ad also shows a person cheating on his wife or husband with a product, a technique that is becoming extremely popular with agencies as actual marital infidelity rates rise — which is probably not a coincidence.

And finally, of course, the ad graphically and explicitly changes the very meaning of an ex-sacrosanct human emotion. In the actual song, Kool's inspiration is a woman, but in the ad you see him insisting in hindsight that this actually wasn't the case, that the real inspiration was Calve's YoFresh!, whatever the hell that is. Orwell would have been proud.

The irony here is that the actual Muses were the offspring of Zeus and Mnemosyne — memory. But what corporations call inspiration is actually the obliteration of memory. You are supposed to forget that people once wrote songs about women, or competed in Olympic sports out of a sense of patriotism and the pure pursuit of excellence. It turns out now that we write love songs about yogurt and compete for barbecue sauce. It won't be long before people stop understanding inspiration as something rare, but will imagine it to be ordinary, mundane, a minor spiritual accessory — Inspiration Comes Standard, as the notoriously inept marketing people at Chrysler put it. Not even the saddest loser would be moved off the couch to buy a PT Cruiser by that sad tagline.

Which just shows you what happens in the end. Even the advertisers lose their ability to be inspired.

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