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Review of Randall Rothenberg’s “Where the Suckers Moon: An Advertising Story”



Newsday, December 11, 1994

WHERE THE SUCKERS MOON: An Advertising Story, by Randall Rothenberg. Knopf, 478
pp., $ 25.

IF THE ESSENCE of the American dream is the possibility of self-transformation,
then the advertising business is surely the quintessential American industry. In
a world of nearly identical products and indecisive consumers, advertising is
the grease that oils the machine, as well as a multi-billion-dollar enterprise
itself. But, given the pervasive influence of advertising on our culture, how
many of us know how it actually works?

In his dramatic and elegantly crafted advertising fable, "Where the Suckers
Moon," Randall Rothenberg uses the story of Subaru's ill-fated ad campaign as a
window on the entire buiness. Rothenberg is master of the micro-macro two-step,
interspersing his painstakingly detailed New Journalism look at Subaru with a
nuanced historical and philosophical account of the image industry as such. Like
a good novel, "Where the Suckers Moon" is bursting with a rich array of
fascinating narratives and characters: a primer on advertising, the history of
Subaru, smaller stories about the ad agencies competing for the account, and the
unhappy marriage between the car company and Wieden & Kennedy, which won it.

Formerly an editor and advertising writer at The New York Times, Rothenberg,
although obviously an ad-junky, balances his love for ads with a clear-eyed
picture of the business. As he makes abundantly clear, advertising is first and
foremost about faith; nobody really knows if it works, and if the emperor isn't
exactly naked, he is not much more than scantily clad. Enormous ingenuity and
energy goes into maintaining the faith, which Rothenberg argues is both
advertising's triumph and tragedy - flawed attempts to elevate itself to a
modern art form carries a price for our culture. "The best minds of a generation
were stirred to fabricate illusions," he writes. "As the century drew to its
close, young men and women were increasingly using their creative powers not to
convey high truths or poetry but to dream up five-word slogans."

When the book opens, Subaru is in trouble. After a meteoric rise in the late
'70s and early '80s, the Japanese auto company ran into a wall in 1987. The
car's price went up, sales went down, and suddenly the old campaign
("Inexpensive and built to stay that way") wasn't moving product. What was
"the perfect car for the back-to-the-country, less-is-more, cardigan-wearing
Carter era" suddenly needed a new "Big Idea."

But how does a car whose appeal lies precisely in its very lack of pretense
and hoopla manage to hype itself? Herein lies the essential tension, a tension
that fuels Rothenberg's book even as it destroyed Subaru's ad campaign. Subaru's
new ads were based on an idea that became popular in the late '70s. "If there
was no longer anything to say about product," Rothenberg explains, "they would
say something about the people who used them." Consumers (and their emotions),
rather than cars, was their focus; they created ads for people who believed they
were too savvy to be affected by advertising.

In its quest for the Big Idea, Subaru hired Wieden & Kennedy, the
cutting-edge Seattle agency whose anti-advertising spots had transformed Nike
into a household name. W & K specializes in "meta-commercials," those MTV
look-alikes whose broad brush-strokes and pop-culture references create an aura
that makes consumers feel good about buying a particular brand of sneaker or
car. For Subaru, W & K created a campaign ("Subaru: What to Drive") whose
understated elegance was designed to appeal to the car's down-to-earth
consumers.

The numerous reasons the campaign failed take up most of this book's 400-plus
pages, but among them two stand out. The first is a story of creativity brought
to its knees: Ultimately, Subaru's feuding executives and dealers didn't know
what they wanted, were frightened of W & K's innovative ads and demanded bland,
standard spots. The other reason for the campaign's failure was economic. In
1991, car sales were at their lowest in eight years and overall advertising
spending declined for the first time in 30 years. The car that had once
considered marketing itself as "the official car of the recession" (one of W &
K's many rejected ideas) foundered on the shoals of a bad economy. But if
advertising is so powerful, why couldn't it overcome adverse market conditions?

At the book's conclusion, the reader is left with a sneaking suspicion that
Subaru's demise had more to do with high price than high concept. Rothenberg
doesn't really explore this potential explanation for reasons that are obvious:
If, in the end, car sales are determined almost entirely by economics rather
than advertising, then ad campaigns (and the books about them) are largely
irrelevant. In a better market, Subaru's campaign might have taken off and
Rothenberg's book would have had a happier ending. Based on the evidence the
author offers, I suspect this is true. But that won't stop any of us from
watching, and occasionally even enjoying, advertisements. Nor should it stop
anyone from reading this enormously entertaining book.




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