False Hope and the Sad Truth
Advertising nearly always reflects what’s on the cusp of oblivion. Rare is the ad that anticipates what’s to come
Below the surface of the year 1965 a revolution was about to erupt. The Academy may have crowned The Sound of Music as the year’s best picture, but that was the last of the past. Bob Dylan’s Like a Rolling Stone was the summer’s surprise singalong: Once upon a time you dressed so fine/Threw the bums a dime in your prime, didn’t you? And it wasn’t just the song that poked you in the eye. Dylan himself was combative. At the Newport Folk Festival traditionalists disavowed his noisy guitar-bass-drums set. Dylan shot back. “Folk music,” he said, “is a bunch of fat people.”
The 1960s were on fire. Malcolm X was murdered. Blood-soaked Bonnie and Clyde was a best-picture nominee. Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered. The Vietnam war was in the streets. Woodstock and Easy Rider were on the horizon. When this Triumph ad hit the magazines late in ’65 its wholesomeness was laughably discordant with the times, its message as antiquated as the featured motorcycle.
Oblivious to the noise around them, the couple in the ad take reprieve next to a pond. But the weeping willow won’t be crying by its lonesome for long. The young man’s renditions of Peter, Paul & Mary campfire classics cannot possibly lure the young woman to hike up her skirt, straddle the dual seat, and accompany him into the future. Why not? She has no legs, just a fishy tail fin. She’s crawled out of the swamp—what else could explain her profound discomfort at being exposed to the atmosphere?
What’s creepiest about the ad is the tag line; For the young in heart, it reads, before drifting off threateningly by way of ellipsis. The botched reference is to the song Young at Heart, which would have been on the radar of the Triumph executives and the ad men who concocted the piece. Young at Heart has these lines: You can go to extremes with impossible schemes/You can laugh when your dreams fall apart at the seams. (I wonder if Triumph bosses were so sanguine when the company, a decade later, collapsed—impossible schemes and fall apart at the seams indeed.)
Can’t you see the Triumph suits standing camera right on the day of the shoot? They’d bitch about the damp grass and mud on their soles, at least until their bloodshot eyes fall upon the fresh-faced pair. Young in Heart is intentional. They executives see in the youngsters a smorgasbord of harvestable organs ripe for transplant. Give up on the idea of the mermaid as your lover, young man, and keep an eye on your liver.
Never have a pair of hedge trimmers looked so menacing. A stooped-back man, likely in his 60s, pauses mid-snip to glare at the camera through clamped-down eyes. It gives the viewer the impression that if you took a step forward those clippers would sever your genitals. We learn that this man likes gardening, classical music, and cooking. He dislikes dogs, modern music, and you. Whoever you are. Wherever you’re from.
The ad, from the summer of 2016, is for Cobra exhaust. The copy claims “a soul-lifting boom” and that its mufflers are “for the rider who thinks, ‘too loud is just right.’” The company’s (trademarked) byline is “ride loud.” But something isn’t right in this ad—there’s a false note in the tune they’re humming.
A muffled Harley-Davidson (the brand pictured in the ad) is a decent sounding motorcycle—as delivered from the factory. But yank the stock exhaust off and install a pair of “neighbor hater” mufflers (yes, that’s what Cobra calls them) and it’s a different story. A straight-piped or minimally silenced Harley is an abomination. Richness of tone departs and in its place is a tuneless, hollow, flatulent wail. It’s a bad sound, and not just because it’s loud, but because there’s nothing that suggests musicality or mechanical sophistication.
The Aprilia RSV4 that Claudio Corti rode in the MotoAmerica series is loud. So is a jackhammer. (The Aprilia has a wonderful sound—complicated, rich, with a tone under load distinct from that on the overrun. And that you know the Aprilia’s engine is held together by a crankshaft of dubious strength merely adds to the titillation—at any moment it could come spectacularly undone.) But I don’t want Corti’s Aprilia any more than I want a jackhammer in my neighbourhood at seven on a Sunday morning.
"A muffled Harley-Davidson is a decent sounding motorcycle—as delivered from the factory. But yank the stock exhaust off and install a pair of 'neighbor hater'mufflers (yes, that’s what Cobra calls them) and it’s a different story"
The hedge-trimming man doesn’t like “modern music.” But that doesn’t mean Katy Perry. It’s anything composed in the twentieth century, from show tunes to the Beatles to Philip Glass. The hedge-trimmer has never smoked a joint, soaked in the bathtub, and chilled-out to Portishead. The hedge-trimmer is a Beethoven man. And to love Beethoven is to revel in the sonic and emotional depth of the music. And a Beethoven man—even a misanthropic crank like this guy—could never love an uncorked Harley’s clatter.
But while Cobra’s ad may be out of tune, it’s on the money. It’s the era of vice as virtue and of intolerance as strength. If my bike wakes your colicky baby, well, too bad. Civility—the attribute that makes civilization function—is so blatantly out of fashion that even a manufacturer of exhaust pipes gets it.
Let’s play the ad’s scenario through. Taking offence at his “neighbour haters,” a group of locals knock on the man's door in the spirit of reconciliation. One woman heard the Missa solemnis from an opened window and tells him she loves Beethoven, too. She’d hoped to strike a bond. She’s miffed by his dismissive snort. The man feels at risk by this vigilante group of child care workers, accountants, and student baristas. His hedge, he realizes in horror, isn’t high enough to keep them out. He needs a wall, a beautiful wall, to encircle his property and ensure his freedom. And since they have a problem with him, it’s obvious who should foot the bill for its construction.
(Cobra USA Incorporated did not respond to requests for an interview.)