Saturday, June 26, 2004

Return To Us, Madison Avenue!

He got a lot of big ideas and thought his way up to Mad Avenue
He navigated that bizarre world easily...
Eventually, like Napolean, he attacked Russia

House of Mirrors, T-Bone Burnett

Whatever happened to Madison Avenue? It used to be one of those mythic addresses, like Wall Street or Hollywood & Vine, identified with actively promoting corruption in America. Television, film, literature all pointed their finger in that direction. Tom Rath (Gregory Peck, for those George Costanzas who won't pick up the book) used to button up his grey flannel suit, kiss his beleagured family good-bye, then board the train in Westport, Connecticut to report for work on Madison Avenue, for a corporation that took its time devouring what was left of his soul. Put a name on evil - Mammon, the Establishment, the System, the Man - then place your finger on a map: Madison Avenue. It didn't matter if you were a West Coast hippie or a Bible Belt fundie, you were in complete agreement on this point: Madison Avenue was directly responsible for American decline, initiating every foul trend from rampant consumerism to the degradation of the English language ("Tastes good, like a cigarette should!").

At some point in the mid-70s, Madison Avenue performed a vanishing act, never to return. Now when the extended family gathers over a carved turkey, the conversation is drawn as frequently to clever/amusing television commercials as to the programs they sponsor. Increasingly, the ads are more entertaining than the shows. What was once a clear appeal on behalf of vice (every ad a gleeful romp through the Seven Deadlies), has been transformed into The Art of Persuasion.

While the civilized sophisticate in me acknowledges and appreciates the genuine artistry involved in selling everything from razor blades to literary works (I frankly think it's laudable that the culthood of Chip Kidd has surpassed that of the authors he's served), the knee-jerk moralist in me frets at the loss of this convenient bogey-man. I'm a straight dude with a heartbeat - I "get" Britney's appeal, and easily empathize with Dylan's decision to pull on the dusty boots and overcoat for a week's worth of moping around a girl in her underwear. I'm also the father of two daughters, and I'm deeply troubled by the fact that I have to explain why "sexiness" - and these girls are a few years shy of 10 - is a quality we ought to employ with a good deal more shrewdness than Madison Avenue encourages.

See what I mean? Madison Avenue isn't there anymore, and there is no secular short-hand substitute to replace it. "The Media"? Nope - impossibly large and amorphous. It currently encompasses every conceivable bias you could cook up: liberal, conservative, gay, homophobic, etc. etc. No matter what bias you claim, it's verifiable. Which, in fact, is fine - identifying and intelligently engaging biases is a good thing. What I'm talking about is more direct and insidious than "bias." I'm talking about Vice, which isn't a "Right" or "Left" issue. It's a human issue, but to articulate it with such bald force is to open the door to unwelcome religious/political vagaries. No, what we need is a secular shorthand for Vice.

We need Madison Avenue - now, more than ever.

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