In May 1991, an episode of "thirtysomething" aired that featured an exchange between the characters Michael Steadman and Miles Drentell that I've always felt neatly summed up the true nature of advertising and, by extension, media and politics. I think I wrote it down at the time, but long ago lost it. I've finally found it again, thanks to the internet.
The writer of the episode, Joseph Dougherty, has a blog/podcast called "Handwritten Theatre," and last year he posted a clip of the audio from that exchange. Until "thirtysomething" is released on DVD, it'll have to do.
Here's his setup:
In an episode I called A Stop at Willoughby, in an unsubtle tribute to Rod Serling, Michael Steadman is at odds with agency head Miles Drentell over a client's demand to fire an actor from an endorsement contract because of his temerity to appear at an anti-war rally. It was a way for me to articulate the very queasy feeling I was getting about the right-wing shift the country was experiencing. At the time, we thought it couldn't get any worse. Yikes.
I'd like to say the episode now feels like a quaint artifact of another period in American history, something we've all gotten over. But I realize this scene is more relevant now than it was when it was first broadcast on May 14, 1991. It sounds like I wrote it yesterday.
In the scene, Michael and two associates are pitching an alternative commercial to save the contract of the actor, Randy Towers, who has offended the patriarch of Durstin Ale.
Listen to the MP3 linked to above for the performances by Ken Olin and David Clennon, which are quite good. But the words are what hold the power for me:
MICHAEL STEADMANSo, we're still at the picnic, but almost right away we realize that these are the people that came back from the war. And how its "Job well done," and now its time for America to get back to work solving the problems here, because look at us: We can do anything we set our minds to. And then, uh, maybe we change the slogan to: "Peace. Who deserves it more?" MILES DRENTELLMichael, the measure of success in this field is the Clio, not the Nobel Prize. MICHAELI'm not trying to win anything here, Miles. MILESYou actually expect us to do a commercial specifically referring to the war? MICHAELDidn't your original concept refer to the war? MILESNo, mine was about patriotism. The viewer connects it with the war. I have nothing to do with it. MICHAELWait a- No no no, Miles, of course we're connecting it to the war! We're selling the war! MILESOh no. We're using the war to sell. MARK HARRITONYou can't be serious? MILESWhen have you known me not to be serious? ANGEL WASSERMANRemind me of this conversation next time I think I'm being paranoid. MILESI think the two of you might want to step outside for a moment.
MARK and ANGEL leave the office.
MILESSit down, Michael. You don't look at all well.
I'm curious to know, Michael, just what you think this company does? On a very basic level, you seem ignorant of what you and I do for a living. Have you been sleepwalking all this time? In a trance? I don't know how else to explain your coming in here with that "I'd like to buy the world a Durstin" concept.
MICHAELAll right, Miles, we'll give Durstin his patriotism. Full tilt, Yankee Doodle, everybody is going to feel safe and united and secure, and God Bless America, man! MILESFrom sea to shining sea. MICHAELWhich is great, because I do believe God does bless this country, but he blesses all the rest of them, too, doesn't he? MILESThe conversation is approaching an end. MICHAELYou know, all Randy Towers did is ask a question, Miles. Just because we won the war doesn't mean we can't ask any more questions, does it? MILESThe thing that most appalls me is your hypocrisy. MICHAELMY hypocrisy? MILESDo you actually imagine there's some difference between this campaign and everything else we do? MICHAELIt is different, Miles. MILESNo, it is not. MICHAELIt is. It has to be. MILESOr what?
Do you know what I love about this country? Its amazingly short memory. We're a nation of amnesiacs. We forget everything. Where we came from, what we did to get here. History is last week's People magazine, Michael. So don't pretend to cry for Randy Towers. No one really cares.
MICHAELAll he did was express an opinion. MILESHe expressed an unpopular opinion. No one wants to be unpopular. That's why we're here. That's the dance of advertising. We help people become popular. Through popularity comes acceptance. Acceptance leads to assimilation. Assimilation leads to bliss. We calm and reassure. We embrace people with the message that we're all in it together, that our leaders are infallible, and that there is nothing -- absolutely nothing -- wrong. That is what we do. It's what we we've always done. And, under your gifted stewardship, what we will continue to do. Onward toward the millennium. In return for our humanitarian service, we are made rich. I'm sorry if you misunderstood the nature of this covenant, but you've done so well up until now, I thought you knew.