Recent college graduates, we’re told, are wrestling with how to use their shiny, new diplomas. Jobs are scarce, living is expensive, and the parents’ basement looks pretty good. But for the psychology graduate, there are several solutions: S/he can spend a couple of more years in college, hang out a shingle, and help people cope with a demanding and indifferent world.
Another option, and this one requires some luck, has him/her landing where the bucks are. The deal here is to dupe the rest of us into buying things we come to think we need. The whole point of advertising is to communicate with both the forebrain and the midbrain of the hapless consumer. The perfect ad shows the virtues of the product to the rational mind, but also infuses us with subconscious signals that make the inner brain juices flow. In the case of male boomers, for example, the Marlboro Man made us dream of a rugged, outdoor existence where we could live on our own terms. There was no BS in this guy’s life. Never mind that he hadn’t had a date in 10 years, reeked of fresh cow poop, and had a developing melanoma on his forehead.
He coughed a lot, too.
By the looks of it, plenty of psych grads are struggling mightily to get me to buy another motorcycle or maybe more motorcycle gear. I hear their love songs in the motorcycle magazines I read. Because these rags are pretty cheap, there have to be a lot of ads to help pay the bills. Standing alone in this wasteland is one magazine that is ad-free. Their treatment makes much clearer what the ads in the others are trying to do, including the often not-so-subtle signals designed to make me swoon.
For example, if you’re thinking about joining an Internet dating service, don’t. Just get a motorcycle (a scooter will also work) and then sit back. If you’re broke, a black leather jacket might even do the trick. Who needs the hassles of a puppy? With a bike in the driveway, women will be climbing in your windows. Gender-recognition is also facilitated because these women are wearing next to nothing. Most are so top-heavy that they are in danger of toppling over at any moment. This is clearly a blatant appeal to your subconscious helpful male side - you can help these people walk. The part I don’t get is the absence of any signal to the fifth of riders who are female. There are no muscular guys in briefs waving from the front door as she purposely hops on her commuter bike.
What’s that? Women are different? Oh.
Then there is something I will call "kinetic appeal." All of these magazines test and then write extensive reviews of new motorcycle models. Clearly they believe (know?) that their readers are devoid of any imagination because they always, and I mean always, include at least one photo of a rider leaning the bike hard in some tight corner.
This might take 10 passes in front of the photographer to get just right. Do I really need this image to understand a particular motorcycle? No, I do not. But maybe deep-down I dream of racing my new bike at Laguna Seca, dragging my knee to get the edge on that corner? The image people must think I do.
Finally, who are portrayed as riders in these ads? Let’s do the men first.
Everything is black: the hair, the three days’ growth, the leathers, and rarely, even the skin. Many bear more than a little resemblance to Blackbeard’s first mate, or even to some bomb-wired terrorist. "What me smile? I’m too busy trying to run over small dogs." Obviously they ride because they have to - they’d never get past the TSA. Mothers tightly grip their children when behind them in line.
Occasionally a woman rider is depicted (remember that neglected 20 percent). Usually, she appears to be thinking about how to remove your beating heart. She is not having a good day, either.
Still another subset of people in the ads seems to have more than the average 2 percent of the Neanderthal genome we all carry. They come complete with beanie helmets, big brow ridges, shaggy beards, and beady, piercing eyes. They’re usually shown riding in a small group, out looking for mastodons.
Whom, exactly, are these agencies targeting? Are there any pet-owning, law abiding, tax-paying, hard-working, spouse-loving people reading these things? You know, normal people. In theory, these companies have done their market research. Know your demographic, and then manipulate that group until they lust for the product: "The Kawasaki Ninja 1000 has a mill with all kinds of character. The exhaust note has elements of blender on puree and angry, one-ton wasp." Okay, fine, grow that demographic, especially among younger men who like everything at high RPM. But these ad people also appear to be courting our darker sides, too. There are no more pirate ships (in this country, at least), but, secretly in his/her heart of hearts, every motorcycle rider wants to be bad, wants to be out there on that windy bridge -- musket in hand, parrot on shoulder -- searching the horizon for fat, slow minivans full of New World gold.
Bob Engel lives in Marlboro with his motorcycles, wife, and cat.