Gone in Thirty Seconds: On Michael J. Arlen’s Advertising Drama

February 2, 2015 | 2 books mentioned 6 min read

30secDVR and subscription services have somewhat emancipated TV viewers from the tyranny of the 30-second ad, though once a year viewers willingly embrace our bondage during the Super Bowl, last weekend’s Carnivalesque ritual in which trips to the bathroom were timed to avoid commercial breaks. Whether you found the ads uplifting or deflating (to use a topical word), now would be a good time, while Sunday’s commercial orgy is fresh in your mind, to read Michael J. Arlen’s Thirty Seconds, his classic account of the making of an AT&T spot.

In Thirty Seconds, Arlen, then television critic for The New Yorker, chronicles the filming of “Tap Dancing,” the first of five commercials for AT&T’s long-distance phone lines. (Arlen’s father wrote the massively popular 1924 novel The Green Hat, the opening scene oh which happens to have the sensual, dreamy quality of a high-end perfume ad.) The N.W. Ayer advertising agency came up with the company’s “Reach Out” campaign and its accompanying ditty, which melodically encouraged both telephone users and subway gropers to “Reach out, reach out, and touch someone!”

According to its architects, the 1979 campaign sought to reinforce the notion that long-distance calling is “an easy, non-traumatic experience.” How did it accomplish this? By “selling emotion.” The “Tap Dancing” commercial consists of five “vignettes.” In each, two people share a moment of remote rejoicing: a tap dancer rings his granddaughter from backstage and listens to her practice her steps; a hockey player missing his front teeth calls his similarly chomper-challenged son after winning the championship game; two women, one white, one black, chat on the phone while doing yoga headstands; a cowboy, having just competed in a rodeo, calls a female jockey, who has just competed her race; and a newly shorn Army recruit phones his father, a barber, from his barracks.

That’s 10 scenes to cast, shoot, and splice together into a 30-second ad guilting viewers into making a long-distance call to their mother, old friend, parole officer, whomever. The eminently moral ad execs insist, however, that they have done their best to keep the “obligation level” light:

You can suggest in an artistic manner that a person might feel better for making a phone call to a faraway friend, but it wouldn’t be right to suggest that something terrible will happen to the person if they don’t make the call…

Formally, Arlen constructs his book around a sequence of short, punchy episodes, or rather vignettes. Arlen is primarily an eavesdropper, briefly profiling the actors, setting the scene and then letting the dialog of the principal players drive the action. That dialog has a Sorkinesque quality, all the more so because it’s endowed with that same blend of seriousness and triviality. During one shoot, Gaston, an advertising executive in the creative group, notices a glass of milk precariously positioned on a television set. He and the director, Steve, discuss the potential backlash:

Steve says: “[The glass of milk] looks good. A nice quality.”

Gaston: “I know, but then the phone company gets letters saying, ‘How could you leave that milk there? The kid is going to spill the milk on the set, and the house will go up in sparks, and all those people will be burned to death.’”

Steve: “They’d say all that?”

Gaston: “All that.”

It’s comforting to be reminded that before the Internet, concerned citizens were perfectly able to vent their outrage.

Every so often, Arlen will hazard a brief authorial intrusion, but his withering ironic presence is felt most conspicuously through his absence. Take the following scene in which the team scouts locations:

Steve says: “I like this house. It’s a little upscale, but it photographs very well.”

Gaston says: “We could do the white yoga here.”

Linda says: “Wouldn’t the black yoga be better?”

Jerry says: “I’m not sure it reads black.”

Steve says: “Don’t worry. We can fix the downstairs room like a black girl’s apartment, whatever that is. You know, give it a condominium look.”

I suppose Arlen could have interrupted here to consider whether advertisers must adapt to their target audience’s prejudices to be effective, or whether they actively perpetuate racism by shaping those prejudices. Instead, Arlen follows the discussion as it casually segues into finding the house that “says tap dancing” to the director. Arlen’s reticence strikes me as even more damning, perhaps because the four-line exchange blindingly illuminates the workings of racism more than any cultural analysis could.

Arlen treads just as lightly with the notion that “reality” is a nothing more than a filmic effect to be achieved. When an actress questions why a rain machine operated by a man named Billy is needed when it is actually raining outside, she is told: “That’s God’s rain…It doesn’t show up on film. We need Billy’s rain.” Omnipotent though the Lord may be, some extraordinary feats remain beyond even His power.

One of the book’s pleasures is watching the participants’ obsess over such details, be it finding the perfect “generic emblem” for an imaginary hockey team or determining how a soldier should call home: “[The phone] might be better not by his bed. I mean, would it look military with the guy lounging in the sack?”

Each participant demonstrates a sincerity about his or her calling that is as touching as it is risible. The director, Steve Horn, is renowned for not being “afraid to deal in human emotion.” He studied Italian Renaissance painting at Columbia, a foundation he claims serves him well in constructing his tableaux vivants. Time and again he is faced with conditions that would ruffle even the most phlegmatic of Quattrocentro painters. During the yoga scene, a toddler, Lily, is supposed to imitate her upside-down mother and topple over in a comical, endearing fashion. In some takes, however, Lily stays exasperatingly upright: “Damn, I wish she’d fallen down then. Why won’t she fall down?” As the exhausted director sighs at the end of another frustrating shoot involving a stubborn cat and its bumbling handler: “You know, sometimes those little human touches just about break your back.”

One N.W. Ayer man describes leaving the Packaged Goods department to take on the “greater emotional texture” of AT&T’s Long Lines account. An actor avows that attending commercial acting school was “a very important step for me. Very significant.” When pressed to explain why, he says that while it’s difficult to put into words, it taught him how to hold a sheet of copy during auditions. An actress is more expansive on the art of commercial acting:

I’m proud of what I do, and I think it’s refined my craft tremendously. Mainly, it’s tightened my technique, and it’s taught me how to cut out extraneous stuff. I mean, it’s a very demanding form, because you’ve got only thirty seconds in which to establish a character…

However, some ads aren’t worth the money or the chance to further refine her craft: “I won’t do those brutal pesticides that poison the environment, and I won’t do douches…”

Casting poses its own challenges: “Llamas are terrific. I like llamas, except they spit.” Thus is the career of one talented camelid cruelly curtailed. One young lady auditioning for the yoga role has better manners than a llama but is passed over because she reminds the casting team of “some Procter & Gamble girl,” and thus is presumably more suited to feigning ecstasy over laundry detergent than performing sensual yogic postures with a phone stuck to her ear. (Or at least that’s how I interpreted that classification.) There are a handful of reliably heartwarming grandmothers but a dearth of new, or rather old, talent: “The trouble is each grandmother has been used so many times.” The team faces a similar shortage in its search for the toothless hockey player, for the understandable reason that “there just aren’t any actors who want to appear on TV with missing teeth.” (They cast a real hockey player instead.) Finally, the discussion over a candidate for the rodeo cowboy captures the wry tone of the book’s many clipped exchanges:

Jerry says: “He might do.”

Steve says: “He’s too Southern.”

Linda says: “He’s from Jackson Heights.”

Steve says: “I mean, he looks Southern. He says barnyard to me.”

Linda says: “I’ll bet he’d be surprised to know that.”

Our fascination with the dastardly tricks of subliminal advertising notwithstanding, the ad industry primarily trades in the blatantly manifest. The same ad executive who claims that “in thirty seconds, everybody notices everything” also admits that one should never “worry about being too obvious visually.” The latter statement partly explains why the “Reach Out” campaign spots, which can be found on YouTube, look laughably hokey today — then again, so will most contemporary commercials in 25 years. After reading about the ridiculous effort that goes into making such schmaltz, one wonders what the commercial would have looked like had the N.W. Ayer advertising team phoned it in. Surely not much worse?

Arlen frames the commercial’s release as ironically as he does everything else in the book. “Tap Dancing” first airs on the Johnny Carson show during an interview with the tennis star Roscoe Tanner. When Carson goes to break, the commercial comes on, sandwiched between a Volkswagen ad featuring Wilt Chamberlain and an amateurish spot for a local car dealership. Arlen resumes transcribing the Carson interview: another ad come and gone.

In the book’s most interesting, Mad Men moment, director Steve takes a post-shoot drive, which prompts him to reminisce about his father:

You know, driving always has a nice feel for me, even in traffic. One of the things I remember from long ago — it must have been right after the war: my dad would take us all out driving on the Belt Parkway every Sunday. Every Sunday afternoon, we’d all get in the car, and he’d drive us up and down and around the goddamn Belt Parkway. I guess it was his idea of a family thing to do. I guess he also really loved that road.

It’s a wonderful story — moving, funny, and a little sad — made all the more stirring by the contrast with the manufactured familial bliss and “human emotions” in which Steve traffics. The sly Arlen manages to sneak in a vignette that actually reaches out and touches someone.

is a staff writer for The Millions living in Durham, NC. Learn more about Matt at matthewseidel.com.

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