Saturday, July 28, 2007

"I thought you knew"

I've been looking for this for a long time.

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 STEADMAN
So, 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 DRENTELL
Michael, the measure of success in this field is the Clio, not the Nobel Prize.

MICHAEL
I'm not trying to win anything here, Miles.

MILES
You actually expect us to do a commercial specifically referring to the war?

MICHAEL
Didn't your original concept refer to the war?

MILES
No, mine was about patriotism. The viewer connects it with the war. I have nothing to do with it.

MICHAEL
Wait a- No no no, Miles, of course we're connecting it to the war! We're selling the war!

MILES
Oh no. We're using the war to sell.

MARK HARRITON
You can't be serious?

MILES
When have you known me not to be serious?

ANGEL WASSERMAN
Remind me of this conversation next time I think I'm being paranoid.

MILES
I think the two of you might want to step outside for a moment.


MARK and ANGEL leave the office.

MILES
Sit 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.

MICHAEL
All 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!

MILES
From sea to shining sea.

MICHAEL
Which is great, because I do believe God does bless this country, but he blesses all the rest of them, too, doesn't he?

MILES
The conversation is approaching an end.

MICHAEL
You 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?

MILES
The thing that most appalls me is your hypocrisy.

MICHAEL
MY hypocrisy?

MILES
Do you actually imagine there's some difference between this campaign and everything else we do?

MICHAEL
It is different, Miles.

MILES
No, it is not.

MICHAEL
It is. It has to be.

MILES
Or 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.

MICHAEL
All he did was express an opinion.

MILES
He 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.