See Something Say Something

Dushko Petrovich


We are now surrounded on all sides by small ads. For the time being, we reassure ourselves not so much with their tininess, but with their inaccurate aim. My affection for Tottenham Hotspur—the English soccer team—means that omniscient Gmail sends me endless ads about bone spurs. On Facebook, I take some cheap shots at Sarah Palin and the multibillion-dollar, publicly traded behemoth decides I’d like to see … ads promoting Mitt Romney. Missed again, you corporate motherfuckers! says the little voice inside my head. Your marketing will never catch me! Of course, it eventually will. It already kind of does. A fleeting invitation to a gout study somehow snares me: Did I post something fatty?

Meanwhile, in the paper-bound world, a different kind of targeting is winding down its long tradition, offering unique pleasures which I am only just starting to savor—both because the Internet has taught me things, and because I fear these other, less-appreciated tiny ads will soon disappear forever.

So there you are, on a Sunday with your coffee reading Harper’s, or Bookforum, or The New Yorker, and after a series of carefully orchestrated, full-page ads that either flatter your interests (Why yes, I am curious about Bolaño!) or accede quietly to their evolution (Enough with the Žižek, already!)—you come across something altogether different. Their size congratulates your sense of discovery. At first, you think these little rectangles are amusing because they offer monogrammed sweaters and self-publishing opportunities—things that are undoubtedly funny, in a sad, Skymall sort of way. But sometimes the funny sadness goes deeper than that, like the sadness of “unique diamond fish jewelry” for $15,000. And then sometimes you are plunged so deep into these ads, you wish there was a German word, or school of social thought, that could sufficiently describe the experience.

Behold, the right-hand column on p. 77 from April 30th’s New Yorker.

Here we blatantly have bedroom adventure gear right next to farming teens and then two ads for posh rehabilitation. The first rehab offers an “elegantly appointed environment” directed, you would have to say, at old money. The second one is secondchancesforteens.com. Above these ads are ones for pearl puddles, “not your father’s safari jacket,” Hunter and Coggins offering more blazers, and the McClean center offering more treatment—unparalleled treatment, even—for “co-occurring disorders.”

We know that this co-occurring combination has not been created by some wacky inhuman algorithm which has no idea about homonyms and the like. The New Yorker doesn’t have a masthead, but I think we can assume their layout is overseen by humans. Neither is this the result of failing public education systems, or the decline of print media, or even the oft-referenced ignorance of the “fly-over” states. Ladies and gentlemen, this is straight from the pages of The New Yorker.

The weird thing—you realize, flipping skeptically back to the other pages—is how all the carefully placed (and you thought, “understated”) doodles have actually been leading up to this bizarre Upper East Side marketing orgy. You’re following some cute glyph about smoking, then one about stationary, then dirty dishes and some mischievous cat—then it’s suddenly “Not your father’s safari jacket” followed by pearl puddles, LIBERATOR dildos, Quaker teens, rehab, troubled teens, and more jackets. It’s like a mini-Buñuel movie! And they expect you to keep following along with Malcolm Gladwell, or whoever it is, over there to the left? Why would you? You want to shout, Hey Malcolm, can you shut up about Twitter and explain the neo-surrealist montage unfolding perversely in the margins?

Hard to picture one person with these particular needs, but let’s have another look. Taken in order, it could definitely be that the guy gets out of rehab at Fernside—you picture him hiking through the ferns there, at his side—wearing not his father’s safari jacket, maybe the pearl puddle earrings (a gift) are in his pocket, along with some (discreetly packaged) LIBERATOR gear; he happens, on his way west, to visit the farming teens—who don’t really look 15-17, it should be pointed out—then one woodsy thing leads to another and he’s right back in rehab; fortunately this time he’s “in an elegantly appointed environment,” and the poor organic teen, for her part, goes to secondchancesforteens.com (nearby, but also far enough away, “in the Catskills”); at this point, we lose track of her, but our New Yorker-subscribing protagonist, when he gets out, prudently opts for a more conservative, non-safari type jacket, from Hunter and Coggins, in Asheville, “which were $195, now $165.” Nice choice, you’d have to say, given all that’s happened.

But it’s madness to read those ads like that. No way the “bedroom adventure gear” is intended for outdoor statutory—it probably even says that on the box, right under LIBERATOR, in kind of a smaller and less red (but certainly still legible) font. Plus, the organic teen farming thing doesn’t mix with the whole urban middle-aged S&M vibe, am I right? And the dude with the safari jacket obviously doesn’t consider VT exotic enough to turn him on sexually, and Quakers aren’t Catholics, etc. So that story doesn’t make any kind of sense.

How about we take it slower and picture it like a family: Like most people, they have some jackets and some jewelry—and OK, some substance abuse problems—and they prefer to send their teens away for the summer, or maybe for the whole school year. And yeah, they need to liven up their love lives—is that so wrong? And if it does come down to it, it just so happens they can pay for the rehab in cash, to be sure the furniture is nice, and the other clients—they do call them clients, don’t they?—are also discreet. Interested in literature. Educated.

Probably more sensible still, is to pan even further out, as Facebook and Google have taught us to do. Let’s picture the demographic family, the overall structure; the list of names, the relationship to the text at left. McLean, Kate Hines, Tamarack, Sheppard Pratt, Hunter and Coggins. How does this list relate to the actual articles? I don’t want to be mean, because The New Yorker is one of my favorite magazines and probably our nation’s best, but they have been known to do this very thing to other people. Are their tiny ads some kind of tiny penance? Seppuku for running all those “Stop That Metaphor” bits and the dependably snooty “Talk of the Town”? Or maybe it’s an in-house way of critiquing the “Shouts & Murmurs” section. Hard to be funny on purpose, I always say.

Or is it that the ad people have decided to have as much fun as the other editors, before they are the first to be replaced by a computer program? If so, then God bless—and long may it continue!