The Subliminal Historicity of Advertising, or Bears Behind Glass

During the early months of 2001, I noticed that several bears were showing up in television advertisements (the ads were usually for cars, but one was for soda). Most of these involved some form of bear-baiting: one or several men would taunt the bear with soda or a camera, then flee or fight the bear into submission because the soda gives them superpowers. My mind, overtrained to recognize cultural leitmotifs, responded to this barrage of bears with a mild “what the hell?”

So I brought it up at my workplace (which at that time was in fact an ad agency). Nobody else had noted the arrival of the bears, but we were all starting to fret a bit about the economy. And then it hit me. A whole generation of ads was starting to bait a very large and nasty oncoming bear market which in less than two months would run amok and flatten the entire ad business. That's my theory, and I'm sticking to it.

On much the same note, lately several museum-style dioramas have been showing up in commercials. These started with a series of print ads from early 2001 that showed “travel practices of the twentieth century,” such as waiting in line for tickets and so forth—practices that would be rendered obsolete by computer technology. This topos has branched out to washing machines (“Isn't that our [disyllabic] washer?” a New York beldame asks her husband, upon seeing a model from the 1920s in a display case) and supplemental insurance (the famous duck tries going incognito at the natural history museum). I think these diorama references preserve a subtle anxiety about technology (Moore's Law and all that) that has only gained in relevance after September 11. Those travel practices of the twentieth century sure are back with a vengeance, and we are all in an elegaic, historical mood, worried about insurance, and hoping to keep our lives under control, if not under glass. —LS