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Making It

Hype

by Steven M.L. Aronson
Morrow, 399 pp., $15.95

People no longer do anything with respect to what they’re doing,” writes Mr. Aronson, “they do everything with respect to that third eye, which is the eye of People magazine.” Our culture is “sorely menaced” by what he calls “hype,” “the merchandising of a product—be it an object, a person, or an idea—in an artificially engendered atmosphere of hysteria, in order to create a demand for it or to inflate such demand as already exists.” Hype is a “conspiracy” against a gullible American public, “a force that makes a mockery of the human essence”; it debases our language and “manipulates taste as it vitiates our power to discriminate.” These claims raise serious questions: How are careers and reputations inflated by publicity and promotion? Are critics of American culture correct that our conceptions of status and power are shaped by press agents and public relations men?

Mr. Aronson tells us that his task is to inspect and “eviscerate” the phenomenon of hype. He sees the “hyping” of a career as a kind of contest: behind the players eager to promote themselves, he says, there generally stands a “super” who manages, or somehow advances, their careers, usually with the help of publicists and promotional “representatives.” Then there are what Aronson calls “referees” of the game, gossip columnists and others who dictate what is in, out, chic, tacky. Aronson claims to construct an “inductive model” of hype by offering the reader portraits of representative stars, supers, and referees.

His book begins with an account of how the model Cheryl Tiegs became Middle America’s sweetheart. There follows a series of chapters describing how the “What becomes a Legend most?” ad campaign for Blackglama mink resuscitated some older stars. Several chapters are devoted to “supers”—hairdressers like Kenneth, plastic surgeons (Dr. Thomas Rees and others), and publicists and agents (such as Irving Lazar, Herb Schmertz, and Bobby Zarem). The book describes self-promoters in architecture (such as Philip Johnson, Richard Meier, Robert Stern) and medicine (Dr. Denton Cooley). As for “referees,” Aronson examines the careers of the restaurant owner Elaine, the food critic Mimi Sheraton, and the gossip columnist “Suzy.” The book’s last chapter is a portrait of the “empress of hype,” the romance novelist Barbara Cartland.

Mr. Aronson is a skilled interviewer; he has a flair for inducing his subjects to hang themselves with a maximum of embarrassment. One unfortunate subject is the plastic surgeon Dr. Howard Bellin. He is the author of Dr. Bellin’s Beautiful You book, from which Aronson quotes such opinions as the following: “Eventually we may be able to develop an electrical device that can be worn at night to enlarge the chin and cheek bones, or even to provide additional height. Redesigning the entire body could be done by feeding personalized contour information into a computer.” Bellin was recently sued by an abdominoplasty patient who charged that he had shifted her navel two-and-a-half inches off center; a Manhattan court awarded her over three-quarters of a million dollars. Bellin tells Aronson that the bellybutton episode “accomplished something I wanted very badly”: his practice grew as a result of the publicity the suit created, and, more importantly, his London tailors, Kilgour, French, and Stanbury, mounted his “individual suit pattern” on its wall next to that of another celebrated client, Prince Michael of Kent.

Aronson has also extracted some choice statements from the architect Philip Johnson. Asked why a friend and colleague is successful, Johnson replies, “Chutzpah. He’s a shit,” and adds, “He wants to be the Philip Johnson of his generation.” Later in the interview he claims that a well-known architectural historian’s “greatest fault is that he isn’t overenthusiastic about me.”

More than any other public person in contemporary life,” writes Aronson, the tireless eighty-one-year-old Barbara Cartland “is synonymous with strenuous self-promotion, the prerequisite for acclaim in our time—a time in which every one of our ennobling values has been shaved down to one bald rubric: whether one is famous or not.” Aronson describes how she started her career as a gossip columnist, then ran a hat shop, and how she became president of Britain’s National Association for health, which she used as an occasion to promote the Barbara Cartland “brain pill,” “Celaton CH3 Tri-Plus.” She takes seventy vitamin capsules a day and a special herb, about which she tells Aronson that “one man who took it lived to two hundred fifty-six—this has been authenticated by the Peking and French governments.” She has recorded her favorite love songs with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, and has published more than one hundred novels including The Vibration of Love, The Ghost Who Fell in Love, and The Prince and the Pekingese.

When Aronson interviewed Cartland, she praised the skill of her daughter Lady Raine Spencer (stepmother of Princess Diana) at promoting Althorp, the Spencer family seat, through the sale of “rape whistles” decorated with pictures of the house. Asked whether Diana Spencer’s marriage stimulated the sale of her books, she replied, “I don’t honestly think it made any difference. Oh, maybe it gave a tiny push to my latest nonfiction, Romantic Royal Marriage, published on Charles and Diana’s wedding day. A nine-ninety-five trade paperback, one hundred twenty-eight pages with forty black-and-white photos and one hundred fifty color illustrations—you get a lot for your money.” She seems to like the premier of India: “Indira is a very, very great friend of mine and I love her—I love her very very very much”; besides, “India’s a divine country—everyone has such intense spiritual experiences because the air is so dry.”

Back in New York Aronson recounts how the fashion model Brooke Shields caught the skin of her stomach in the fly of her Calvin Klein jeans and despairingly rang up the designer for advice at 2 AM. On a related subject, an apparel manufacturer tells Aronson: “I make Sasson jeans, I make Calvin Klein jeans, and I make Jordache jeans, and they’re all the same.” We are told that Aristotle Onassis thought the Impressionists were so named because they wanted to make a big impression, and that a hairdresser, Maury Hopson, regards “mood synthesizing” as part of his job. Dr. Denton Cooley (who conducts his heart operations to the music of the Rolling Stones and has a tape deck built into one of his heart-lung machines) was asked by a movie star (who was in turn asked to play the surgeon in a film) whether he could attend one of his operations. The doctor consented, and in order to show the actor what it feels like to be a heart surgeon, reached into the open chest cavity of an infant patient, took out its palpitating heart, and placed it in the actor’s palm. After hundreds of pages of such unrelenting trivia, one feels the need for Mrs. Cartland’s special herb.

Mr. Aronson likes very few people, and he seems to enjoy vituperation and waspishness, most of it heavy-handed. Mocking Lillian Hellman for appearing in a Blackglama ad, and subsequently being confused by some with Bert Lahr or George Washington, he high-mindedly pursues the playwright’s crime to the bitter end: “Would Madame Curie have succumbed to Blackglama’s blandishments? Would Doris Lessing?” Referring to athletes who endorse products, he delivers a judgment that might have been uttered by Carlyle: “It’s a pity when children worship heroes who themselves worship products.” Time magazine once said of a photograph of Cheryl Tiegs wearing a transparent bathing suit, her “body is awesome, and her face is so fine and strong and unembarrassed that questions of taste do not arise.” About this Aronson is prudishly severe, protesting that questions of taste do arise, for “we must remember for all practical purposes, this is a picture of a naked woman.”

For the few subjects he likes, Aronson spares no praise. Although according to Aronson, the hairdresser Kenneth is often dubbed an “artist”—even “Rembrandt of the Ringlets”—by the press, he thinks of himself as a humble servant; “publicity means nothing to Kenneth except as a source of business,” and “he lives by his skill, not in his image.” Aronson concludes warmly, “It is a quiet comfort to remember that, in the hype world of abhorrent exorbitance and odious disproportion, Kenneth remains proportionate.” I read this passage several times before I realized that Aronson was not claiming that Kenneth’s bodily parts do not capriciously alter their relative sizes. But we soon find that the food critic Mimi Sheraton is also “one of the few proportionate people in a multi-billion-dollar industry.” She warns the public “against indiscriminately sucking the hype popsicles manufactured by the industry” that present-day eating has become. “Mimi is our guardian against food hype—just as proportionately as Kenneth is our guardian against hair hype.” Public relations lost a proportionately great talent when Mr. Aronson chose to take up sociology.

His most extravagant praise, perhaps, is reserved for the gossip columnist Suzy, a “shrewd and deft referee of the social game.” Her gossip is “delicious.” Her life is “glamorous”; “unlike champagne when it’s been around for a long time, Suzy’s effervescence has never gone flat.” “Suzy’s dares to be ingenuous—after all, it’s the behavior Americans are known the world over for—because she understands that we all live in the rush of connections to power.” In her column of May 8, Suzy describes what sounds like such a rush—a “super-glamorous” party given in a “fabulous townhouse” for the publication of Aronson’s book. Among the guests she lists Kenneth, Richard Meier, and Barbara Cartland’s grandson, Viscount Lewisham. She writes, “Brendan Gill allowed…that when the book came out, Steven Aronson wouldn’t have a friend left in this town. You wouldn’t have known it from the mob of the beautiful and the undamned who pushed into Katharine Johnson’s to see and be seen.”

Aronson is of course right that press agents and public-relations experts have debased language by ceaseless exaggeration and inflation of this sort. “Perhaps it’s too late,” he writes, “to go back to speaking plain, to speaking—as Emerson wrote—straightforward American narrative.” He thinks a culture cannot “possibly maintain a language” without “regulators of words” such as “Hemingway and John O’Hara.” However this may be, his own book is written in the keyed-up style of a press release, with one-word sentences and one-sentence paragraphs, often pretentious and occasionally unintelligible. A football player “gets off on” appearing in an ad for fur; people “luck out”; the patients of plastic surgeons have “cuts and alterations made in the text of their flesh”; days are described as “electric” and “feisty”; public-relations agents “suck” “pop platitudes” from “the tit of psychoanalysis”; a “hair bulletin” “zizzles” through the air; the British throne is described as “an engorged organ of stupendous self-celebration.” The most curious description of all is that of an ad man’s “presumption” as “uncircumcised.”

Mr. Aronson writes that “thanks to today’s license to billboard the secret side of public lives, gossip is more aggressive than ever in making and breaking reputations, careers, marriages, even governments,” but, he hastily adds, he deplores gossip and says that “to the seven deadly sins there should be added an eighth: gossip at its most vicious,” But Aronson’s own license to billboard the secret side of public lives allows him to identify by name a New York editor who published under a pseudonym a memoir of a sado-masochistic love affair, to tell us that Queen Mother Frederika of Greece died while her eyes were being lifted, to intimate that Dr. Herman Tarnower was a practicing homosexual, and to disclose that Sophia Loren and Barbara Walters had face-lifts. It is strange: in one voice, Aronson denounces gossip and more generally practices moral one-upmanship; in another, he broadcasts scandal that can only encourage other gossips to raise their voices.

In a recent interview (conducted by himself in Interview magazine) Aronson claims that “what I’ve actually done is write a kind of American ethnography—a more reliable ethnography, it now seems, than Margaret Mead did in Samoa.” In any case, he fails to give the analysis of “hype” that he promises. For one thing, his selection of subjects is skimpy, largely omitting hype in the theater, the movies, advertising, television, or, indeed, literature. His explanation of the alleged predominance of “hype” in our time is the lame one that “we don’t have the luxury the Greeks had of a set of gods firmly in place. We want heroes and there are so few natural ones. Perhaps that’s why we have to keep inventing them—or rather, having them hypecast for us.”

Such vagueness betrays Aronson’s difficulty throughout this book: for all its vehemence, his scorn has no clear object. He does not adequately discriminate among the kinds of promotion he discusses, for example between promotion of an object or idea or person for the sake of profit and promotion simply for the sake of someone’s vanity. In his introduction he says that “hype differs from advertising—which it employs, along with public relations, as accomplices—in that it is not directly paid for.” Yet a few lines later he writes that “perhaps the most nefarious feature of hype is that it is not billboarded as a species of advertising and therefore enjoys greater credibility.” At times his book reads like a wholesale condemnation of promotional advertising, on moral grounds, as wasteful, tasteless, untruthful, etc.; but simply to attack advertising can be, as a famous economist said, like “blaming the waiters in restaurants for obesity.” Many passages in Aronson’s book would lead one to think that he believes press agents, publicists, and others have conspired to manipulate our tastes in an unprecedented fashion. Ours is “an age of hype,” he says; hype has “come to fulfillment in our time”; “its inner workings are as invisible as its results are visible.”

But this seems to me the opposite of the truth. I doubt whether the desire to be “famous,” sometimes at any cost, is much more common today than it was, say, a half century ago. And I wonder whether the actual power and influence of publicists and promotional agents was not much more powerful a half century ago—and precisely because it was less visible, more centralized, and less understood by the public. This was certainly the case in the movies in the days when men like Howard Dietz of MGM could shape the public personality of a star, when agents like Myron Selznick were “supers,” and when gossip columnists like Hedda Hopper, Louella Parsons, and Walter Winchell “refereed” the game with little competition.

I think that, if anything, we have come to know more about how promotion and career advancement really work; People has made it more understandable. Today “publicity” and “exposure” have become something like a popular commodity; the paths to celebrity are more numerous, partly because the old monopolies controlling promotion and publicity have been broken, and because the gossip industry has been expanded (and made freer) by internal competition.

What seems distinctive about gossip today is not so much that the popular appetite for gossip and publicity has radically increased, as that it has become a merchandised item, with the consequence that gossip makers themselves have become celebrities. “Promotion” may have become a commodity available to many more people than it ever was. In any event, the effect of these changes seems to be that, contra Aronson, we are freer to distrust (or accept) publicity because its internal mechanisms themselves are better understood and publicized. And, although no one really knows how to find out, perhaps as a result we are quicker to exercise our consumer sovereignty and detect promotional inflation and its products—such as people who are “famous for being famous”—when we see it. As Joseph E. Levine says in an interview in Aronson’s book: “Today you can beat the shit out of a picture—drums, parades—and the public still won’t come.”

In parts of his book, Aronson seems to allow that hype solely for business purposes is acceptable, as in the case of Kenneth. But how are such cases to be distinguished from the hype Aronson loathes? After all, by his admission, a line in a gossip column or even adverse publicity might secure more patients for the coarse Dr. Bellin, and thus promote business. One begins to suspect that the true subject of Aronson’s book is his own dislike of people he takes to be vulgar and pushy and his preference for those he thinks are not. Unfortunately the way he describes both makes them indistinguishable.

This is an oddly self-refuting book: written in the style of the gossip it is intended to combat, and advancing exaggerated and unsubstantiated theses, it is more an instance of hype (as Aronson defines it) than an exposé of it. And the tone, in turn morally ferocious and unctuous, in which it discusses the powerful members of the world it evokes prompts the impression in the reader that its author is undecided between the desire to repudiate his subject and the longing to be installed as its arbiter.

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