I have been a faithful subscriber to the New Yorker for over twenty years, but I have to admit that I had forgotten that the issue of August 22, 2005 was supposed be different. So I suspected nothing when I opened the front cover to find a full page, red-and-white illustration by Stina Persson featuring a woman's face, some vague neon signs, and a pattern made up of the dot-in-a-circle motif that is the logo of the Target Corporation: a typical image ad. On the opposite page, however, was more of the same: subway car, taxicab, skyline, boom box, Target logo, this time rendered by Linda Zacks. Turn the page, there's a single column ad next to the magazine's table of contents (an illustration by Carlos Aponte featuring more than thirty Targets in various New York settings) facing still another full page ad, this time a group of Target logos dropping over an art deco skyscaper rendered by none other than Milton Glaser.
For the first time in its eighty-year history, the New Yorker was giving itself up to a single advertiser.
I must confess, the effect is unnerving. In high school, I read a book called Subliminal Seduction, an early "expose" of the psychological techniques used by advertisers to market to unwary consumers. The most thrilling passages described sinister exercises in which the word "sex" would be almost imperceptably airbrushed onto the ice cubes in a photograph of a glass of whiskey. This effort was somehow meant to push the viewer one step closer to alcoholism. How exactly this process was intended to work (particularly in view of the fact that the glass, encoded ice cubes an all, was usually photographed in the hands of a woman with mammoth breasts and spectacular cleavage) was always unclear to me. But the idea that ad agencies were skillfully imbedding secret messages in product photography had immense appeal to my inner 14-year-old conspiracy theorist; it also explained why I was always so darned horny.
The all-Target New Yorker is the product of more nakedly mercenary world where advertisers no longer need conceal their aims. There's nothing subliminal about it: I counted over 200 Target logos in the first 19 pages alone, and there were still eleven ads left to go when I gave up. The illustrators acquit themselves well: Robert Risko turns in a funny image of a substantial construction worker perched on a typically un-ergonomic modern cafe stool with a single logo on his back-pocket handkerchief; Yuko Shimizu turns in a spirited biker chick crossing the Brooklyn Bridge with the logo rising before her. Best of all is Me Company's vertiginous computer-generated cityscape, the last ad inside the magazine, which surely pushes the logo count well into four figures, if not five.
Although the publisher has publicly stated that the decision to go with a single advertiser had no effect on the magazine's editorial content — as editor David Remnick put it in the New York Times, "Ads are ads" — the inescapable world of Target creates a disorienting context. Every non-Target illustration in the issue looks a little...funny. Indeed, when I saw the large woodcut that Milton Glaser's former partner Seymour Chwast produced to illustrate Gina Ochsner's short story "Thicker Than Water" (two blackbirds with round eyes that sort of reminded me of...never mind), my first thought was: didn't Seymour get the memo? No, and he no doubt didn't get the paycheck, either. Even the cover drawing by Ian Falconer gives one pause: two boys, playing with a beach ball, a round beach ball, a round red and white beach ball...
Isn't it every advertiser's ultimate fantasy to implant a predisposition to see their logo everywhere you looked? So Target's experiment — which may have cost a million dollars — must be rated a resounding success. But after my head cleared, I managed to actually read the issue, and came across a review by Ian Buruma of Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty by Bradley Martin. The review is illustrated by a full-page comic by graphic novelist
Guy Delisle that recounts his brief stint working in Pyongyang. "Everywhere you look, you look at one of the Kims," reads the caption. "At first I found it amusing. But after a while that omnipresence began to weigh on me. And at the end of my two month's stay it was driving me crazy. On my return flight, I saw North Korean apparatchiks taking their 'Dear Leader' badges off. So maybe I was not the only one who had that feeling."
Like I said, after a while, it just seems like everything's about Target.