PSA: Advertising Advertising
How a political commentary podcast from four former Obama aides - Jon Favreau, Jon Lovett, Tommy Vietor and Dan Pfeiffer - is redeeming [cultural] codes of advertising.
Jon Favreau: Pod Save America is brought to you by Postmates. We love Postmates.
Jon Lovett: We love Postmates.
JF: I postmated a garden hose the other day.
JL: You know Postmates is wonderful –
JF: I’m a homeowner now, that’s what I do.
JL: – it has enabled Jon to basically turn his house into some kind of a staging operation for Postmates.
JF: [Laughing.] Busy time. I’m prepping for the pod, I’m running around, I’m trying to unpack.
JL: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
JF: I need a garden hose, here comes Postmates -
JL: This guy needs another hour in the day is what he needs.
JF: [Laughing.] I do. Download Postmates.
JL: But he can’t have one. What he can have is Postmates.
JF: What I can have is Postmates. Saves you time. Download the Postmates app if you haven’t already. Enter the –
JL: Sometimes at work I’ll play a YouTube video and he’ll just shout, “Time management!”
JL: And I say –
JF: It was a long video –
JL: “Mind your business.”
JF: Only so many hours in a day, Jon.
JL: “Time management!”
JF: We’re trying to build an empire here.
JL: He shouts at me across –
JF: Trying to build an empire.
JL: – the vast HQ.
JL: Postmates. That’s what this is for. Postmates.
If you've ever heard some very-Ira-Glass kind of voice give a fascinating portrait of the underhanded manifestations of capitalism in everyday American life, only to be interjected by a 90-second excursus on Walmart recited in coolly detached, ambivalent tones, you'll know why Pod Save America ad breaks are so refreshing. One of the ironies underlying a number of insightful podcasts about the ways culture is evolving is the episodes’ perennial punctuation by the same exact words, repeated invariably and indifferently (“this podcast is brought to you by…” etc). Work that seeks to contravene the formulaic is underpinned by a format that reinforces it.
Pod Save America is a progressive political podcast owned by Crooked Media (see also their podcast: Lovett or Leave It). Crooked was founded in 2016, when Trump was elected. They’re sponsored by brands including, but not limited to; ZipRecruiter, Blue Apron, Squarespace, Postmates and - “as always” - the Cash App. Typically, the subtle Massachusetts accent of host Jon Favreau - Obama’s former Director of Speechwriting - diplomatically introduces the scripted ad lines, before long interrupted by co-host Jon Lovett, who might offer any number of opinions on the quality of the copy, or perhaps improvise a tangentially related story of his own. Tommy Vietor is especially adept at intertwining ZipRecruiter ads with commentary on the staffing needs at the White House, and likening Michael Cohen to the Cash App itself (as an easy way to pay people off).
To understand the significance of Pod Save’s adverts is to situate them in the context of advertising more broadly. On the ubiquity of advertising by the 1750s, Samuel Johnson had this to say:
Advertisements are now so numerous that they are very negligently perused, and it is therefore become necessary to gain attention by magnificence of promises and by eloquence sometimes sublime and sometimes pathetick. ...The trade of advertising is now so near to perfection that it is not easy to propose any improvement. [Johnson, "The Idler," Jan. 20, 1758]
By 1964, the problem has been exacerbated and surpassed, with Marshall McLuhan observing that: ‘all advertising advertises advertising.‘ Once people have what they need to survive, advertising secures the need to keep consuming. Hyperbolic language and enticing imagery no longer can nor need coax us into buying products; what they’re really selling us is the consumer system.
Podcasts tend to be cast in a mutually consistent mould, in which there’s an implied division of two spheres – the content, which is often political and discursive – and the advertising, which manages to appear neutral and apolitical. The separation of these two spheres is often announced by the upbeat chimes of the podcast slogan – sonically marking a division between the ‘real’ podcast and the obligatory ‘note from our sponsors.’ If there is a connective thread between the two, it lies in the subtle assurance that while the freedoms discussed in the podcast can’t be achieved, freedom to pursue a better grocery box or gym membership is yours.
Advertising is storytelling, and the Pod Save America team’s rejection of the received ad copy delivers a simple message: you don’t have to adhere to a commercial agenda or inherited narratives. By rethinking the ads, the Pod reminds listeners to think for themselves; to use their own voice, not someone else’s (not least that of corporations). Where advertising exists to impress homogeneity, the Pod Save ads foster distinction and personality. Listeners come to know that Lovett will often use the Cashapp to pay back his friend Spencer for some escape room debacle, and he has a dog called Pundit.
Former speechwriters, the Pod Save team clearly understand rhetorical strategy. The composition reflects a band of Washington aides who find themselves in L.A., keenly aware that advertising is always implicitly political; that the myths underpinning politics and bed linen commercials occupy the same ideological locus. In one ad break, when Favreau suggests Lovett already told the same story about Squarespace a hundred times, Lovett defends himself by insisting he “[hasn’t] read the same story a hundred times, ok? I’ve lived the same story a hundred times.”
Most podcasts speak from a place suspended in false-time; on the one hand addressing the listener directly in an imagined, abstracted present ("you're probably thinking... but what if...?”) despite inevitably embodying a voice from the past. Even when acknowledging that the listener lives in ‘the future’ at the time of recording, the detached voice delivers its missive to no one in particular, and the editing mechanisms are seamless and discreet. The voice seeks to eradicate the medium as it speaks through it.
Pod Save ad breaks, by contrast, might be the podcast equivalent of breaking the fourth wall. "Leave it in. Leave it all in" one of the hosts will insist, after an ad for Blue Apron has gone completely off course. The hosts describe the sight of their producers’ faces slowly, silently falling in the recording studio, as they take their ads into unchartered territory.
Advertising has long been one of the greatest conduits for American values - in particular, the right to the pursuit of happiness and freedom. Today, advertising no longer signals happiness or success, because both have become too unsteady as concepts. In the place of more stable terms, ads become suffused with empty values: “life-changing” (a term used with impossible frequency) or “a better way to [hire/cook/buy things].” In an age in which the authentic (irreverence) is favoured over the manufactured (perfection), power increasingly looks like antagonism. The highest office is filled by a President consumed by a rage he has no desire to abate. With their resistance to the ads, the Pod Save team are playing Trump at his own rhetorical game, in which dissidence wins over ‘pure’ substance.
However - it’s precisely their reminder that you have the freedom to reject advertisements that makes the advertising all the more compelling. If the 15 sec >> button is supposed to help you skip ads, I’m liable to use it to re-listen to Lovett, fecklessly editing the ad copy as he goes, telling us another story about how Spencer used the Cash App to pay him back for another wild Pizza Kitchen and escape room experience (Thursday night is escape night) and how ‘spinach and artichoke dip‘ needs a punchier name but anyway the point is download the Cash App.
The invisible ligature between Pod Save's subject (the American government) and the ad breaks themselves is: sponsorship. Both the Pod and the White House run on funding from external sources, whose interests the hosts must promote to a mass audience, in between pushing their own agenda. Taking the analogy to its conclusion; by subverting the advertisements, the team subtly implores politicians to rebuff the excessive influence of donors.
But when enacted with such offhand relish, the derision of the advertising becomes celebration of a different kind, only perpetuating the mythic freedoms of the consumer system. Perhaps that [I’m imagining all this being read in Jon Favreau’s lightly deadpan ad-break voice] is the intangible escape room we, along with Lovett and Spencer, are all in.