It's spring of 1949, and a husband absentmindedly flips through The Saturday Evening Post. He stops at the headline, "We Love to Catch Them on a Springmaid Sheet." It's an ad for a fabric company, which is not something men in this particular era (or our own) care much about. But the woman being rescued is showing a bit of garter as she leaps to safety, her skirt flapping as she lands on a blanket stretched taut by four handsome firefighters.
This is The Tease in action, and believe it or not, there is more here than meets the eye. Elliott White Springs, the president of Spring Mills, was the slightly dirty mind behind a series of incredibly popular ads featuring sly puns and double-entendres that ran from 1947 until his death in 1959. Springs even wrote his own ad copy, and along the way created the rules of advertising innuendo that remain relevant today.
As Charles Goodrum and Helen Dalrymple explain in their book Advertising in America, Springs relied on four principles. First, the reader was considered an intelligent peer, not an easy-to-titillate sucker. Second, a product benefit had to be offered once the reader's attention was gained through pulchritudinous means. Next, racy images should combine humour and respect -- Springs' ads objectified men and women, although both retained their dignity. The final principle was the most important: The Tease was the most effective method of leveraging sex in an ad. An inch of stocking top worked far better than a topless woman.
Springs had to fight with illustrators to show less, not more. "What I wanted was a subtle picture of a girl with her skirt agitated by the wind," writes Springs in a 1948 letter reprinted in Advertising in America. "You send me a picture of a girl with her skirts blown over her head like she was standing over an air jet at Coney Island! It's about as subtle as the Can Can."
It's spring of 2005, and you are staring at the back cover of Vice magazine, where Melissa, the winner of an unofficial American Apparel wet T-shirt contest, is apprising us of her skill set. Here is the Spring Mills of the 21st century, a high-profile cotton company that relies on sex to sell its products. But founder Dov Charney, who helps write his own ads, has no use for the wink. Proud to call himself a pervert, chuffed when porn stars wear his clothes, Charney prefers to build his brand around the single entendre, sleaze without Tease.
Jaime Wolf, writing in the New York Times Magazine this April, noted that, "Charney is pushing boundaries, and knowingly so, and he maintains that your response to his boundary-pushing determines whether you count as a young person or an old person in today's society."
Were he still alive, Elliott Springs would be incensed at Charney's Can Can act. And although I side with Springs, I'm not about to unleash my inner young fogy and yearn for a return of the Burma-Shave billboards. What disappoints me as I slip the bounds of the coveted 18 to 34-year old demographic is that advertising is not treating the newest batch of consumers as intelligent peers. Advertising has forgotten how to be subtle. Worst of all, it requires no cultural competencies to decode.
What are cultural competencies? In the spirit of the horn-dog culture that has allowed the single entendre to triumph (what author Ariel Levy calls raunch culture), allow me to make my point through some hot lesbian action. Hot lesbian cultural studies action, that is.
In an anthology called A Queer Romance, Caroline Evans and Lorraine Gamman talk about cultural competencies, that is, how lesbian viewers are able to see and appreciate homosexual allusions in certain films that straight folks cannot.
That might seem obvious. But let's turn this theoretical tryst into a three-way, and introduce another lesbian theorist, Reina Lewis. In her essay "Looking Good," she argues that, "Evans and Gamman emphasize that the pleasure apparently produced by the code under discussion does not reside in the representation, but in the activity of decoding it."
Got that? Cultural competencies (which are not specific to lesbians but vary from subculture to subculture) reward the solving of little visual mysteries, the ability to spot clues that others cannot see.
Conversely, there is very little pleasure of interpretation to be found in an American Apparel ad. In one, a woman named Kelley re-enacts her favourite vintage porn-mag poses. In another, a man drops trou. To quote Gertrude Stein, "There is no there there." The ad requires all the cultural competence of a horny ninth grader.
Which brings me to Collegehumor.com, a website that often features photos of young women kissing each other, none of whom appear to be tenured professors. A repository of beer and sex jokes, the site is both anthropological curiosity and financial juggernaut. In a profile of the collegehumor.com founders in The New Yorker in January of last year, Rebecca Mead writes, "A key to college humor, the four have realized, is that students like to think they belong to a small in-crowd that understands the joke, while the public at large remains clueless." Here is another example of the pleasure of cultural (or subcultural) competencies.
Mead refers to two of the website's biggest money makers: a T-shirt with the phrase "More Cowbell" and another chemise featuring a hand gesture known as The Shocker. I neither recognized nor understood these cultural touchstones. This made me very happy. Being culturally incompetent is a fine thing. It means you're busy doing other things, like standing in line in IKEA, talking real estate at dinner parties, reading The New Yorker instead of Maxim, and other painful but necessary rites of adulthood.
Through an act of journalistic subterfuge (Google), I have since learned that More Cowbell is a slow-burning Saturday Night Live catchphrase from April 2000. As for The Shocker? It's a boudoir technique of which I can say little more, since this is still a family newspaper. Suffice to say, according to Josh Abramson, one of the founders of collegehumour.com interviewed by Mead, "No one over the age of 25 knows what it means, but I guarantee you that ninety per cent of college students know what it is." Call it sex ed for the new generation.
In a memo on some rough drafts for his first advertising campaign, Elliott Springs wrote, "I want it to appear as if we were just imitating our competitors, and really trying to sell sheets with cheesecake. A lot of dumb bunnies will then write in and bawl us out for being vulgar and stupid. Then some people will take a second look and catch the burlesque, and be very proud that they're so smart." Springs had identified a version of cultural competencies, and the pleasure of being in the know, almost 70 years ago.
Although there is no burlesque in American Apparel, I take solace in knowing I'm not the only one upset about the lack of hidden pleasures in today's advertising. In June 1999, Vice magazine (whose degenerate content is a spiritual forbearer to the smut of American Apparel) printed a letter to the editor from Noel Islavksy, of Moncton, Ont. "What's the matter with your advertisers? Has none of them ever heard of subtlety?" wrote Islavksy. "I, like many men, would appreciate a good tease a lot more. I'm not a prude or anything, but most ads just come off cheesy, not stylish."
I hear you, Noel. In a new short story in the May Harper's, Steven Millhauser writes of the Age of Concealment: "It was as if, after half a century of reckless exposure, a weariness had overcome women, a yearning for withdrawal, a disenchantment with the obligation to invite a bold male gaze." Amen.