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Are You Afraid to Think? New York Review of Books' Direct Mail Marketing Provocation

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A recent subscription plea from the New York Review of Books is the direct marketing monster that broke this individual's back, in addition to being the most glaring example of the latest advertising hook: the intellect.

Scott Thill

Issue #43, April 1999

It's cool to be smart
— Microsoft Commercial
Yes! I'm an intellectual and proud of it. Start my subscription immediately!
New York Review of Books subscription sticker

I've had it.

The moment I signed up for Working Assets Long Distance, my name was placed on a list of potential consumers, confirming my mailbox as the final storage space for promotions from politically aware and active companies, organizations, and publications ad nauseam. Not that I have a problem with considering any offer from an organization that has decided to take, at its heart, the promise of consistent and conscientious activism for the general betterment of our hyper-bureaucratized world. But a recent subscription plea from the New York Review of Books is the direct marketing monster that broke this individual's back, in addition to being the most glaring example of the latest advertising hook: the intellect. Ever since über-geeks Paul Allen, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Steve Wozniak, et. al. thrust their shared cybernetic expertise on an unsuspecting "mass culture," exploiting every cultural memory possible to hawk their wares (casualties: The Rolling Stones' "Start Me Up," Bowie's "Heroes," Jackson 5's "ABC," and most egregiously, Sly and the Family Stone's "I Want To Take You Higher"), advertisers have made it their business to appeal to the intellect, and to propose that their version of intellectual nourishment vastly outdistances that which can be found in the camp of their enemies. No wonder then that the first insert for the NYRB insert is a shocking red piece of paper with the direct challenge, "Are you afraid to think?" printed across its face. Today, advertisers are committed to insulting consumers to the highest degree by subjecting them to a barrage of barked orders ("Be Like Mike," "Just Do It," "Play Hard," "Get In the Car, Now"), blatant appropriation (Apple latest commercials fronting various cultural icons i.e., Ghandi, Picasso, and Einstein with their baffling suggestion to "Think Different"), or straight-up contextual ignorance (Pepsi's 1998 Super Bowl commercial in which the Rolling Stones's ode to heroin or African-American vaginas, "Brown Sugar," is conflated with a ridiculous computer-generated matchstick's giant-lipped serenade to its favorite cola). In this context, NYRB's childish dare indicates the general collapse of the previously sacrosanct pose of the "intellectual." The throwaway sticker that accompanies this dare also seems to transmit a general disdain for other publications or media establishments, conferring cultural capital on itself that it cannot deliver until the consumer has been drained of at least $27.97. This is not about dialogue, it's about the dollar. And the NYRB, like any other company, just wants yours and it will say anything to get it.

Understand that I don't mean this as a slam against "the English Language's preeminent journal of cultural discourse," as the New York Review of Books describes itself. I am critiquing its attempts at self-promotion within the so-called intellectual milieu and its boorish direct-marketing campaign. For example, if you look at the NYRB advertisement in the August, 1998 issue of Lingua Franca, you'll notice that the headline (a blurb given courtesy of the similarly self-congratulatory New York Times) reads "The Last Outpost for People Who Like To Think;" you'll also come across this extravagant assumption, sans the NYT reference, at the head of the NYRB's direct-mail letter to you, the consumer it courts. Contained within the red-lettered challenge, you'll find publisher Rea S. Hederman (for all you budding intellectuals out there, heed the significance of abbreviated first or middle names!), implicating you in the sad state of affairs in which "Too many prefer to have their ideas served to them from non-challenging, shallow publications more interested in entertaining than informing," and further arguing that these "publications [are] afraid of intellectual discussions." Now, I've been in many a playground and basketball-court scuffle and I know a threat when I see one. But the taunting continues, first by insisting who gets to be in the club: "The typical well-educated, well-traveled, well-read New York Review subscriber (the average subscriber has purchased 37 books over the past 12 months) ... [who] welcomes new and controversial ideas." Next, the reader recieves a backup quote from one such lucky (and unnamed) soul reading, "That's why one professor said, ÔReading The New York Review is my idea of what going to a brilliant small university should be.'" Let's try to forget that this esteemed professor and his messenger, whose opinions you and I should value, has no name, and let's also try to ignore that, of course, the average subscriber to a publication that takes book reviews as its main course of business would most logically be an individual who purchases a good amount of books (and let us note that the NYRB insists that the purchase, not the reading, of the books is what marks this elite). Let's instead decode the usage of the term "books" and this unnamable "brilliant small university." Last time I checked, a book was a written or printed work with pages bound along one side, one written perhaps by Danielle Steele, Anne Rice, John Updike, John Grisham or Stephen King. Can you guess which of the aforementioned authors might be mentioned in the NYRB's name-dropping missive? It must be Updike. Steele, Rice and Grisham write garbage, right? Wrong. Within the context of NYRB's ad, "books" signify an intellectual capital without ever establishing the particular knowledge gained from one's association with them. That's because the NYRB is only talking about cetain kinds of books, not books themselves. Which books, you ask? You'll have to buy a subscription to the New York Review of Books to find out. If this sounds familiar, it is because we are talking about discriminatory attitudes that are used to separate the relevant from the irrelevant: this is how your canons were formed.

But it's not as easy as deciphering discriminatory attitudes, because the NYRB refuses to get specific. How is it that we become intellectuals as a result of our proximity to particular tetxs chosen for us by our pushers at the printers? Who are these professors? What small university? At bottom, the designation "books" is employed by the campaign to confer a sense of superiority upon its consumers without ever delving into the mechanisms behind what it is exactly about books, as compared to degraded forms of information transmission, such as television, magazines and the internet, that bestow the "intellectual" designation not on their insatiable readers, but their buyers, their consumers. This process, whereby the commodity sales pitch defers the very tag of its product by appealing to an abstract and illegitimate concept, is used by any and every company to ingratiate itself to the consumer's desire for inclusion. It's a trick of the tongue, or the pen, and it's calling you a sucker. Are you? Think about this: what goes well with books? Why, a university, of course, but not a hugely bureaucratic, messily diversified, and corporate-dependent university like my alma mater, UC Berkeley, but a "small" (read: privately funded) college where the day's m.o. is the honest and thoughtful "ongoing debate of ideas — without the distraction of shallow thinking." No undesirables desired. In addition to the unnamable intellectual-by-association power of these commodities, books, we have the university, an entity fueled more and more by corporate or governmental contracts and less and less concerned with the profoundly cost-ineffective exchange of ideas.

This is the country where something is successful in direct proportion to how it's put over; how it's gamed.
— Ishmael Reed, Mumbo Jumbo
The shape of American national-popular culture has been determined much less than elsewhere by the directive influence, judgment and Ôstandards' of intellectuals and much more by the way in which the culture industries have responded to the changing organization of popular taste. In fact this is so much the case that it is popular culture, and not the work of "serious" American writers, artists and musicians, and thinkers, that is often, and increasingly, heralded as the nation's central and lasting cultural achievement, at home and abroad.
— Andrew Ross, No Respect: Intellectuals and Popular Culture

By now, you should be hot under the collar, ready to go toe-to-toe over your questioned intellectual capacity. But Rea is offering her example of "taking the high ground," that is, she is offering you the chance to show your mettle (at 60% off the cover price, plus a "free book!") by sending in your "Yes! I'm an intellectual" sticker and proving you got what it takes. What you receive, she promises, "is your chance to see the view from above," a lofty position usually reserved for mythic gods, military satellites, and the few Modernists left alive. Oh, yes, and the famed, name-dropped NYRB intellectuals, whose relevant texts include "Edmund Wilson's classic interview with himself," the same Wilson who once wrote, "editors, professors and critics ... very often have no real understanding of the products with which they deal," and also said, "crude and limited people do certainly feel some such emotion in connection with work that is limited and crude ... [while] The man who is more highly organized and has a wider intellectual range will feel it in connection with work that is finer and more complex." Unfortunately this wide intellectual scope becomes very narrow when called upon to employ deep-rooted critical thinking: the NYRB, like Edmund Wilson, considers itself, according to the logic of its pathetic marketing, to be the premiere taste-arbiter and intellectual epicenter of cultural discourse. This does not include pop cultural discourse; the NYRB "has stubbornly ignored the trend to ever more sensational imitations of television in magazine journalism." We are asked to believe that "Robert Darnton's fascinating essay on the golden age of French pornography" is high intellectual material, in contrast to the popular pornography and stories of the President's libido that are to be found in the "slag and scum and sediment that pass for serious writing today," in magazines-cum-tabloids, "filled with gossip and titillating photos." I thought porn was supposed to be titillating! This category of the tabloids is, of course, nothing that the intellect or the intellectuals, including those mentioned no fewer than eleven times in the mailing, would deign to consort with.

And why not? Well, for starters, the other magazines are geared towards entertainment. The NYRB "'has succeeded brilliantly because of its stubborn refusal to treat books, or the theatre and movies, for that matter, as categories of entertainment to be indulged in when the working day is done,'" writes the New York Times (this praise is included in the mailing, in fact, on the backside of the return card which features the aforementioned sticker and its self-indicting opposite, reading "No! I don't like to think"). There are two mistaken assumptions here: 1) books are entertaining as well as meaning-laden, as are movies and the theater and 2) entertainment can transmit meaning just as ably to the Great Unwashed (who, if they're not subscribers, hate to think) as it can to the readers of the NYRB. For example, within the allegedly innocuous March 1998 issue of Marie Claire that my girlfriend brought home from work (sample cover texts: "Your Ultimate Hair Guide: Find the Perfect Cut for You;" "Men Confess: Why They Stray or Stay;" "The Nightmare of Getting a Dream Body") is a brilliant investigation on child prostitution in Thailand, one which "outs" American companies and publications who promote sex-for-sale of underage girls whose virginity is sold for anything between $40 and $4000. By reprinting brochure covers showing show fat, old white men draped in prepubescent whores, as well as Janet Reno's address for complaints (including the relevant UN statute), Marie Claire offers its target audience something else to ponder besides the seemingly endless scented ads that nearly squeeze its stories to death. Perhaps some readers (like my girlfriend who graduated from Berkeley with honors but finds these types of magazines worth her time, and who, according to the NYRB, does not like to think) will take from their dabbling in these "non-challenging, shallow publications" more than hair tips, nail tips, and sex tips: they might be spurred into action and activism. Bottom line: they will receive a message, their message, and translate it into one or another form of social engagement. That is what intellectuals do.

I'll conclude with a less provocative example. I received a subscription request from Z Magazine a scant four days after the NYRB insult soiled my mailbox. No reductive red stickers, no thought-baiting, and, most importantly, no quoted praise from fellow back-scratchers and purse-snatchers. Of course, there was the self-serving rhetoric that you will find in all mailings but most of it was backed up by textual evidence from issues of the magazine. Along the right column of the insert is a simple list of contributors, lacking certain intellectual capitalistic adjectives, i.e. "scholar," "professor," "intellectual" etc. They provide a full table of contents for their special issue on the media, pop in a sample political cartoon (contrast this with NYRB's "genius" caricaturist David Levine's sketch of Mary McCarthy, a boring picture of a squinting woman with buck teeth, typing away), and the claim that "Z is not just an independent monthly political magazine, it's a lifeline to critical thinking on political, social, cultural and economic life in the U.S." And the NYRB's floating signifier, "intellectual," appears only once to, of all things, help describe what Z is not, "passive intellectual exercise." This, friends, is what is called walking the walk.

But don't take my word for it. Go ahead, subscribe to the NYRB, find out for yourself. I'll be curious to see if your mind begins to swell the minute you pull it out of its wrapper. I'll need to find out if you become a highbrow political oracle overnight by virtue of your $27.97 expenditure. I'll want to know, in short, if you have become an "intellectual". And, if you have, I'll ask you to describe to me, the rest of the world, and, especially, whoever does the NYRB's direct mailings, just what the hell that is. Then I'll finally have something to stick between my back issues of The Nation, Sport's Illustrated, and MAD Magazine.

Scott Thill is finishing his Master's Degree on the "Postmodern Canon" at San Francisco State University. After getting hitched in October, he plans to complete his first book. His research interests are contemporary literature and sports. Hopefully, the men's college basketball team at Cal will one day make it to the Final Four and he will finally be able to rid himself of the writer's block that afflicts him every time the Golden Bears piss away a game. He invites your e-mail (unless you're a Stanfurd fan):

Copyright © 1999 by Scott Thill. All rights reserved.

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