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Toward a Theory of the American TV Commercial, Vol. 3: Time Kills, Spuds Abides

In the beginning was the word, and the word was from our sponsors
by Ian Dreiblatt
May 2nd, 2019

This is the third entry in a new recurring feature in which Believer Commercials Correspondent Ian Dreiblatt travels back in time via YouTube.com to review and examine the cultural phenomenon that was Television Commercials. Commercials featured here will mostly be old, and have, in many cases, already left an indelible mark on America and its culture. Read the first entry here, and the second entry here.

Let’s talk about the Spuds Factor. And let’s begin with the artist Chris Burden.

By the mid-seventies, Chris Burden had already completed many of the performances for which he remains best-known. For “Shoot,” he’d had a friend shoot him in the left arm. In “Trans-fixed,” he’d been crucified onto the hood of a Volkswagen Beetle, its engine revving like an anguished Christ. He’d been kicked down a stairway at Basel and had slithered in his underpants over broken glass. Invited by curator Phyllis Lutjeans to tape a TV interview, he’d pulled out a knife, threatened to kill her, and demanded the taping be broadcast live. This work could be called “sacramental,” in that it reenacts the holy forces that constitute American life—violence, car culture, the transmutation of fear and grief into spectacle—using Burden’s body as a bridge to the civilizational dream-space of art.

In 1975, Burden expanded his sacramental palette farther still, in a series of TV commercials he shot and aired in LA and New York. Picture this. You’re at home, cruising through some TV show—hey, maybe it’s “Maude”!—when you soar over a familiar precipice into the sweet, intermediary air of a commercial break. You see the usual sights: newlyweds enjoying their conjugal ketchup at last, Mel Brooks’s advice not to write with prunes, contest of the breakfast ghouls.

Suddenly, Chris Burden appears, whisps of scruff framing his cervine face. Locking eyes with the camera, he speaks three sentences, each one flashing on screen as a block of text: “Science has failed.” “Heat is life.” “Time kills.” This sequence, ten seconds in length, repeats twice more before you’re back to more familiar scenes: the straight-faced proclamation of Rich Flavor Chunks, speakerphone as hi-tech solution for the bedfast, the automotive equivalent of a game of badminton. And then, blessedly once more, there’s “Maude.”

As Allen Ginsberg once wrote, this actually happened. Herds of Angelinos flooded their local affiliates with bewildered calls, and Burden later reported getting recognized at the laundromat, but the stunt garnered little other response (not even one free beer, as Ginsberg also once wrote). The text in fact consisted of sentences he’d seen graffitied on his building.

The piece was called “Poem for LA,” and it was one of several ads Burden aired throughout the mid-seventies. In another, the names of famous artists appear on screen, one at a time, each expanding quickly to fill the frame. “Leonardo da Vinci.” “Michelangelo.” “Rembrandt.” “Vincent van Gogh.” “Pablo Picasso.” “Chris Burden.” A different commercial, which served as one component of his 1977 show “Full Financial Disclosure,” had him offering a candid run-down of his income and expenses from the previous year.

“The real guts of TV is the ads,” he would later say. “That’s what it’s all about.”

In the Vietnam era, Burden had taken the sacrament of American violence by getting shot with a .22 caliber rifle. In his commercials, he takes the sacrament of the American marketplace by becoming not just an artist but an advertiser. He sheds the innocence of the mere consumer, can never again not be the artist who took out an ad during “Saturday Night Live” comparing himself to Rembrandt.

One thing that contributes to the commercials’ power is the wobbling, intense way they convey Chris Burden’s personality—and this is where the Spuds Factor comes in. The Spuds Factor is a measure of the power with which personality is communicated in a TV commercial, on a scale from zero to ten. A higher Spuds Factor indicates an insincere performance, an unwieldy attempt at self that can estrange the most credulous viewer. A lower one, by contrast, wins us over even at our snootiest, bridging the conceptual gap between us and whatever the commercial conjures our desire for.

For a concrete demonstration, consider comedian Yakov Smirnoff, careening at Spuds Factor 10. Today, Smirnoff’s cultural activities have largely been quarantined to the town of Branson, Missouri, but in the 1980s, he was everywhere, including in numerous TV commercials, all of them repellent. For Miller Lite, he cashed in his Russian origins to go full “party-finds-you.” His Amoco commercials are like a fart that makes you go to the doctor. In his Best Western spots, one can regularly see his soul exiting his body. A 1988 Plymouth commercial is a journey to the wavering edge of human comprehension. Throughout, Smirnoff glows with an exuberance so phony it practically melts the screen. It overwhelms the commercial’s sacramental function, if anything pushing us farther away from ecstatic symbological unity with Best Western. This is life at Spuds Factor 10.

Lower down the scale of Spuddicity, we meet Constance Schulman. Before she voiced Patti Mayonnaise on “Doug,” Schulman appeared in a series of ads for Kraft Cholesterol-Free Mayonnaise as Connie, a brassy-but-warm greasy spoon waitress. (She’s also in this 1989 Rax Roast Beef spot, notable for the hilarious idea of calling a restaurant so you can sing to a sandwich.) Connie gives it her all, with quaintly plausible lunch-counter flourishes and the charisma to make us root for her. But her mayophilia ultimately rings false, and her catch-phrase, a twangled “Welcome back to mayo!”, eludes the mind like smoke. She is impossible to play along with. Instead of feeling that we’re in a diner, we are reminded that we’re not. Her Spuds Factor is 7.4, a solidly well-you-tried showing.

Spuds Factor 5 brings us to Dave Thomas. In the sixties, Thomas worked at KFC, where he convinced Colonel Harland Sanders to appear in his own commercials[1]. In 1969, Thomas went on to found Wendy’s, and proceeded to appear in more than 800 commercials for the chain—the most of any business’s founder, ever. They portrayed an impressive range of activities: Dave Thomas with his gym buddies, Dave Thomas making fun of other countries (take that, Hungary!), Dave Thomas grabbing lunch with Kristi Yamaguchi, Dave Thomas inscrutably confessing that he… likes chicken?, Dave Thomas day-dreaming that he’s David Lynch, daddy-o. It’s always fair game not to empathize with a beef millionaire, but Thomas’s gameness and seemingly unfeigned humility, his blasé way of being an edible-garbage magnate, make him annoyingly sympathetic. When George W. Bush, nothing if not folksy, awarded Thomas a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2003, even he quipped, “Americans are not always in the mood for exquisite meals.” This is Spuds Factor 5: a squareburger forced-birth advocate you still kind of want to buy a floppy sandwich from.

Spuds Factor 2 is magnificent to behold, and Candice Bergen comes closer than most, holding down a 2.6 in her early-nineties commercials for Sprint. Bergen courses through these ads like radiant meaning in a fiber optic cable. She swings from crypto-mom to globalization angel to free money imp, totally unflappable. She acknowledges the absurdity of her situation[2] without succumbing to it, joking about the gig while celebrating her own influence. She can recite the most insane corporate eco-bullshit with a shrugging acknowledgment of capitalism’s pointed amorality, and our souls cry out for ten cents a minute.

The Spuds Factor is named for the only character ever to achieve Spuds Factor Zero: the original party animal, beloved terrier and Bud Light spokesbro Spuds MacKenzie. In a signature ad campaign, Spuds threw a party inside our emotions, seducing much of humanity into his beach chair over a soundtrack that cycled from fake Beach Boys to fake reggae to fake country. “There’s a super party animal,” his theme song explains. “His name is Spuds MacKenzie.” He’s a dog who throws dance parties on a yacht, who’s into haunted house sex, who pole-vaults. He’s that dog who’s already at the ski lodge when you arrive, just playing a little blues guitar. His charisma marries the abjection of being a dog to the dream of universal social acceptance, a Party Frenzy Exalted.

Spuds has been the center of much discussion the past few years. Nick Greene’s exhaustive 2017 profile traces out his life, complete with excoriation by Strom Thurmond and keystone role in inspiring “Baby Got Back.” In another recent essay, Jazmine Hughes writes that for her Spuds was “an extension of my lifelong fascination—envy, even—with the unalloyed levity and audacity found in a certain type of white, straight masculinity.” But despite the ongoing historical nightmares this association conjures, the admiration Spuds inspired was “guiltless… because he transcended the human form.” This is to say he was a religious figure, channeling perilous questions into rituals of transformative attention. (He’s depicted even more religiously in the 2017 commercial where he returns from the grave as a moralizing party wraith.)

The Spuds Factor ultimately helps us gauge how effectively a TV commercial connects us to its referent. The lower its S-Factor, the more swiftly an ad can accede to its sacramental purpose, seducing us into union with the elemental brands that structure our world. A good commercial is a tiny baptism, initiating us into a cosmic order of manufactured longing and sanctified consumer choice. Like a River Jordan flowing between the Galilee of our desires and the Dead Sea of commerce, in which all is buoyant and nothing breathes, it spans the conceptual gap at the heart of our experience. This is the good news that Yakov Smirnoff can never understand, and that nothing, not even death, can stop Spuds MacKenzie from spreading.

What makes Chris Burden’s commercials exceptional is not the lowness of their Spuds Factor (at 3.2, impressive but not blistering). Rather, it’s the fact that what they “advertise” most of all is the Spuds Factor itself. These ads don’t promote a product, offer no information, urge us toward nothing. Instead, absent of any merchandise to move, they direct our attention primarily to the torqued affects they inhabit, remaking the artist’s image as a bare channel to commercialdom. There are no Flavor Chunks here—just the spectacle of Burden’s personality, bridging the hazy canyon that divides what we think we know about art from our lives and the many mayonnaises we use them to serve.

As we watch an artist, famous for crucifying himself on a Volkswagen, crucify himself instead on the airwaves that blanket his nation, the sacramental strain in his work merges, briefly, with the sacramental role personality plays in all commercials, and we are fleetingly whole. Science has failed, time kills, and yet somehow, sinners that we are, we can still achieve a fractured kind of grace, succumbing to the charisma of markets through the personality behind TV’s Murphy Brown, floating like dog-ghosts for a night outside the blessed keggers of capital. Now that’s refreshment.

 

[1] Prefiguring Chris Burden, to whom we will be returning, one of them opens with a quavering hymn to Sunday Dinner worthy of a pyramid wall, and then features a shot of a very Last-Supper-y-looking meal draped mystically over the hood of a Volkswagen.

[2] In Candice Bergen’s “Hey, it’s you!” ad, as in Constance Schulman’s “Welcome back to mayo!” ads, we see the cruddy American diner—which by the early nineties was rapidly obsolescing under the spreading shadow of chain-dining—immortalized as commercial backdrop. Compare the way ancient Egyptians carved their stone columns to recall the bundled reeds crucial to the architecture of earlier ages.

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