"When business is good it pays to advertise; when business is bad you've got to advertise," an adage holds.
By the late 1980s, business had finally gone bad for Subaru of America, which sold 183,242 of its practical if unsexy Japanese-made sedans and wagons in 1986 but saw sales drop to 108,547 in 1990.
So when the sales company was taken over in 1991 by Fuji Heavy Industries, the manufacturer of the cars, and the decision was made to retool Subaru's image by hiring a new advertising agency, Randall Rothenberg, then a media reporter for the New York Times, saw an irresistible opportunity.
Knowing how much it meant to an agency to land a lucrative car account, he got Subaru's permission to cover the selection process from the inside and report on it, first in an article for the New York Times Magazine and now in this book, "Where the Suckers Moon: An Advertising Story."
As one can sense from its title --, which comes from a line by the writer A. J. Liebling, "Fortune swims, not with the main stream of letters, but in the shallows, where the suckers moon" -- the book does not tell a story of resounding success.
After screening hundreds of agencies, Subaru of America finally settled on Wieden & Kennedy, a hot young outfit in Portland, Ore., put on the map by its contribution to Nike's high-flying advertising.
As Mr. Rothenberg tells it, Wieden & Kennedy created a series of ads for Subaru that were based on the tag line "What to drive" but were richer in trendiness than in detailing the virtues of the product.
Understandably, this didn't play well with the dealers, who saw the message as implicitly designed to drive the customer away. Defects in the quality of the ads, the balky Bush economy and Fuji's refusal to lower production quotas combined to do the rest of the damage. Wieden & Kennedy ended up being dismissed.
Mr. Rothenberg follows the entire process like a gray-flannel fly on the wall, reconstructing those few scenes at which he was not present.
At every opportunity, he whizzes back into relevant history, for instance to trace the migration of the ad business to and from Madison Avenue or to describe the watershed of so-called creative advertising that was represented by the famous Volkswagen ads ("Think Small") created by Doyle Dane Bernbach.
The author's skeptical outlook can be entertaining and instructive, particularly when he digs up stories such as the one in which George Lois, "the Marat of the Creative Revolution," signed up a Japanese baseball star as a pitchman for Subaru -- "You taught us baseball; we're teaching you how to make cars" -- only to discover that the player was actually Korean.
He traces the rise of West Coast advertising and explains the development of "a post-modern sensibility in the advertising industry." As he puts it, advertising could be "metacommentary," or "art that explicated, through irony, camp, iconic reference or self-reference, the commercial itself and the consumer culture of which it was part."
The drawback of "Suckers" is that Mr. Rothenberg goes on at too great length with a story that doesn't quite bear the weight of his commentary.
A greater handicap still is that moral disdain for the culture of advertising is such an ancient exercise that this reader, for one, tended to discount Mr. Rothenberg's subtle ridicule and to look for the virtues of effective salesmanship, a necessary evil in a free-market economy, despite all of John Kenneth Galbraith's complaints.
But what you get in "Suckers" is a surfeit of people who themselves have contempt for the advertising game. Their attitude is summed up by one art director's TV commercial that began with the statement "Karl Marx once described advertising as maggots feeding on the rotting corpse of capitalism" and concluded with the response "Let's do lunch."
In fact, as Mr. Rothenberg presents his story, this attitude lies at the heart of why Wieden & Kennedy's Subaru campaign failed: It was written by people who not only disliked advertising in general but also despised cars in particular.
As Jerry Cronin, the creative director of Subaru of America's advertising account, sums up his own attitude: "I want people to know what cars can do. They won't make you feel better or more successful. . . . I want to separate people from their cars, get rid of the emotional bind. People are far too attached to their cars. I want them to see that cars are a hunk of metal. Automotive advertising is the biggest lie of all time. You want to live better, look better -- buy a grill, go to the gym!"
So despite the distastefulness of so many of its characters, "Where the Suckers Moon" remains a revealing job of reporting.
Title: "Where the Suckers Moon: An Advertising Story"
Author: Randall Rothenberg
, Length, price: 478 pages,$25