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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

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.