The High Price of Culture

MADISON Avenue has a new strategy for slipping into the discerning pocketbooks of the baby-boomers. Last week The New York Times Magazine, that barometer of cultural trends, ran several ads typical of a new marketing trend which links high-priced items with art and literature.

The most striking examples appear in new ads for cars--one for the British car manufacturer, Sterling, and the other for Rolls Royce. Both ads use quotes from high-brow authors who are in the canon of high culture.

The Rolls Royce ad features the famous insignia and hood ornament at the front of the gleaming silver car set against a black background. Against this stark but regal scene stands a quote from Henry James: "Live all you can; it's a mistake not to."

The Sterling ad focuses more on an elegant, quasi-rural image of chic. The ad depicts the beige upholstery and warm wood trim of the car's interior--described in loving detail as "a secluded chamber of Connolly leather and burled walnut." A well-worn satchel and a map lie carefully placed on the seat awaiting, presumably, use in some grand adventure. The ad portrays an atmosphere of modern royalty--variously referring to the car as a "kingdom" which costs "only a youngish prince's ransom."

The clincher is a quote by the 17th century Metaphysical poet Andrew Marvell, which presumably illustrates the regal yet intrepid image of the man for whom the car is designed. (That the ad is meant for men is clear. Women are often called a variety of things, but we're not usually dubbed "princes"). The quote reads in part, "Society is all but rude/To this luxurious solitude."

APART from the obvious silliness of all this high-falutin' posturing there is a subtler, more insidious suggestion. These ads are not designed for just any consumer, they're for the wealthy, the status-conscious, the elite. Literature and art can now do for high-priced luxury items what alligators and polo ponies did for those once-cheap cotton sport shirts--they imbue the product with an unmistakeable mark of prestige.

The use of such famed "classic" authors provides the product with the kind of elan and credibilty no living writer ever could. And while dead authors are not around to endorse merchandise (Can you picture this: "Hi! My name is Herman Melville, and I never go out on whaling expeditions without bringing my American Express Gold Card...) a quote or a reference easily and elegantly invokes their mystique.

But beyond the obvious attempts to stamp their products with the imprimatur of high culture, the questions remains as to why these authors in particular are chosen. After all, there's no dearth of well-known dead writers. In the case of James, Rolls Royce no doubt was aware that the famed American anglophile would be the perfect author to endorse this symbol of British luxury to an American audience.

And as for Marvell, he is the perfect hero for yuppies with a fondness for culture. In his time, Marvell was an advocate of the carpe diem philosophy, known for his lines to his coy mistress, "Had we but world enough, and time,/ This coyness. lady, were no crime." Here Marvell not only exhorts the reader to seize the day but also to indulge his desires.

But while this may jibe well with the ethos of the Pepsi generation, it's a prositution of Marvell's thought. And while this simplistic distillation may sell cars, it is a corruption to pretend that yuppiedom can claim Marvell as a soulmate.

Another ad in this vein epitomizes the bizarre uses of literature as a commodity. It advertises Glenlivet, a brand of whisky. The ad portrays a tiny man climbing up on a bookshelf trying to reach a bottle of Glenlivet which has been lined up with leather-bound books and which, with its elegant, dark green bottle and carefully calligraphied label, fits right in. The books on the shelf have strange titles like Size Dification in Humans and The Case of the Shrinking Man.

The copy underneath this practically inexplicable visual reads "The Glenlivet. Just Slightly Out of Reach." The effect is to emphasize that this type of whiskey is too prestigious, too refined, for mere mortals who are puny and insignificant compared to the grandeur of Glenlivet whiskey. The allure of the unachieveable that the ad plays on is linked with the books that accompany the whiskey on the shelf. These books have an offputting, "artsy" exterior, not to mention that each title remarks on the diminishing stature of humans.

It's all part of an incorporation of "culture" into consumerism. Books and paintings are not to be experienced, considered, even analyzed or simply enjoyed. They are a mark of status and can be consumed just like any other commodity. Literature and fine art have simultaneously been brought closer to and further from us. Now they are like the extravagant goodies behind the Bloomingdale's shop window. They are for all to see but for only a few to experience.