Tuesday, February 12, 1991 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Shows Examine Our Dominant Art Form: Advertising

Welcome to your nightmare, PBS fans: an evening of public television programs chock full o' commercials.

Steel yourself. Images of Bo Jackson and Madonna and Cher appear briefly, and not to answer pledge break telephones.

The really scary part, though, comes when someone argues that advertising has become the predominant art form of our age. And you realize he's right.

Tomorrow night's Smithsonian World special, which airs at 8 p.m. on Channel 9, and ``Inside Advertising,'' which follows at 9 p.m., mostly steer clear of art criticism, though.

``Selling the Dream,'' the Smithsonian documentary, tracks the making of a 30-second television commercial for Mitsubishi's new sports car, the 3000GT.

The auto executives wear the looks of people about to spend bales of money - $160,000 just to produce the commercial, and another $80 million or so to buy the TV time. The Grey Advertising execs working on the account wear the nervous look of people aiming to please their patrons.

At times, hearing the admen defend their ideas is like listening to film students who have spent too much time at the coffeehouse.

``You've just established red light that turns to green and car goes, and light disappears,'' explains one copywriter presenting a storyboard to Grey's creative director, who rejects most ideas before the client ever sees them. ``The feeling of that is . . . he has gone.''

``Inside Advertising,'' produced by Seattle's KCTS, promises a tour guided by a panel of local ad executives, a communications professor, the state's assistant attorney general and a consumer advocate.

Mostly, we learn that a panel discussion about ads can verge on ponderousness after a show stuffed with images of the ads themselves.

Truth vs. falsehood? What a quaint notion. ``We don't make any claims in our advertising,'' notes Jim Riswold, copywriter on the Nike account, known for producing ads that seem to beam straight from the TV to the sticky part of our brains. Riswold hatched the slogan ``Bo Knows.''

Meanwhile, the Great American Novel waits to be written. And, in ``Selling the Dream,'' the Mitsubishi ad director keeps worrying. The horse track chosen as the setting for the commercial, she frets, makes her company's $30,000 coupe look like it's ``in a cornfield.''

Advertising wasn't always so high stakes, nor so sophisticated. ``Selling the Dream'' reminds us of the days before focus groups, days when television ads used to appear live and a stagehand might have to pry open a refrigerator's super-convenient ``automatic door.''

Almost from the start, though, advertisers turned to emotional appeals. Their products cured shameful diseases like dandruff and ``toilet tissue illness.'' They met the deep-seated needs uncovered by market researchers, who learned that people would rather own a car than a bathtub.

They learned to sell the sizzle, not the steak. And cars became one of the thickest, juciest cuts.

``Selling the Dream'' leaves no doubt: Ads have traveled light years since Dinah Shore warbled ``See the USA in Your Chevrolet.'' Jump cuts! Slow motion! Computer animation!

If the advertising apologists in ``Selling the Dream'' are right, we're better-educated consumers than ever.

So how come it seems like we don't feel any happier?

On that, the Smithsonian documentary gives a former chairman of the Federal Trade Commission the last word: ``The real path to a civilized life, to humanness, comes most often through things that can't be sold in the marketplace, '' he says. ``That advertising doesn't tell us is because there's nobody around to pay for it.''

Yep, this must be PBS.

Copyright (c) 1991 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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