A 30-second spot for the Super Bowl broadcast sold for more than $4 million. In this economy. In the time capsule that will memorialize our absurdity for future generations, please place that next to Honey Boo Boo and hot-dog-stuffed pizza dough.
It’s insane, but companies’ fortunes rise and fall based on these extravagant spots. In Truth in Advertising (Simon & Schuster, $24.99), the debut novel by John Kenney, our protagonist has been challenged to create one. A brilliant, knowing commercial that will capture the zeitgeist, galvanize the water cooler, and tweet its way into infamy. The catch? He’s got no time, his estranged dad is dying, and the commercial is for diapers.
Mad Men has spent more than five years making the advertising world look sleek and sophisticated. In the capable hands of Don Draper, a pitch meeting for KodakCarousel acquires the gravity of art and a Samsonite ad can become an allegory for the human condition. In reality the advertising world is fairly ridiculous, where much is at stake but little matters. Kenney, who’s worked as a copywriter for 17 years, mines this rich territory for satire. Egomaniac directors, ultrahip editors, celebrities who’d rather be juicing—these are the necessary ingredients for a bloated Super Bowl spectacle. There are few elegant metaphors for life around here. In one proposed commercial idea, Al Gore’s head will be superimposed on a bunch of babies.
The man at the center of this besotted diaper campaign is Fin Dolan, a frustrated artist (is there any other kind?) casting about for meaning and purpose as he crawls into middle age. A well-dressed member of Manhattan’s creative class, he’s good with sarcasm, bad with sincerity. He thinks in zooms and fade-outs, always experiencing reality as a bit paler for its lack of sound cues. He describes his generation of men as “pulled down by a riptide of hair products and spin classes, white wine and feelings.”
Fin is a man deeply out of touch with his feelings, despite his soft hands and thoughts on home furnishings. He doesn’t know what he wants—why he left his fiancée, what he feels for his colleague Phoebe, or why he cannot reconnect with his working-class Boston family. Truth in Advertising traces his path back into his own haunted past, in particular to his father, a World War II vet who left a violent legacy.
Kenney is an amusing writer—his humor pieces have been published in the New Yorker—and much of the novel has the frothy feel of a romantic comedy. Readers will likely be able to predict the book’s outcome, but arriving at the conclusion is pleasant enough, anyway. Fin’s struggle to understand his dad brings a layer of emotional complexity to the tale. “Why is it that I’ve always thought I was a better person than my father, when, in truth, I’ve done very little with my life that took courage?” he asks. For all its cutesy banter and goofs on consumerism, Kenney’s novel wrestles with deep questions: What makes a good man? What makes a good life? What should one’s contribution to the world be?
It makes sense to stare down these issues in the context of advertising, an industry that does a bang-up job of selling easy answers. As Don Draper once said, “What you call love was invented by guys like me to sell nylons.” Advertising is about the creation of craving, a restless longing as fundamental to life in the 21st century as gourmet coffee and Justin Bieber. One great appeal of Mad Men is that it allows viewers to feel smug about their own consumer savvy, although those same savvy fans will turn around and splurge on midcentury modern furniture and Banana Republic’s (GPS) ’60s-inspired pencil skirts. People want to be told how to live, because life is baffling and strange.
In the end, Fin’s journey is rather modest: He aims to better understand his own desires. But as he tells us at one point, “I read somewhere that we’re exposed to five thousand advertising messages a day.” When you’re up against that, knowing what you want is a heroic act.