Most American children of the 1990s will recall with fondness how chirpy TV commercials colored everyday life. When I was still too young to know better, I wished for a credit card purely to splurge on all the colorful deals emanating from the TV aglow at night. This was back when these cathode ray machines took up the majority of the living room with their ostentatious cabinetry, replacing the hearth as the center of family gathering. For a lower-income household especially, who could not afford fancy services to fast-forward through broadcasted content, commercials became a source for jokes at school and comforting background murmur during weekend sleepovers. National memory hinged upon the TV commercial, particularly crescendoing around the annual Superbowl. I never did buy anything that I was advertised—those desires sublimated—but for advertisers, simply appearing in a commercial probably fulfilled more than just sales. It gave them their moment in the sun.
Generally ranging from thirty seconds to two minutes, these micro-theater performances taught me the art of persuasion. Infomercials typically began with heightened sensitivity to a problem that you never knew you had: carpet stains or bored children. Sometimes the producer decides to desaturate these scenes, to make more traditional practices like using paper towels or painting with watercolor seem ancient. At the cinematic climax, they introduce a convenient modern solution that would save both time and money. The third act concludes with an irresistibly sweetened deal to sway even the most closed of hearts. It was the promise of a good life that usually cost little more than an hour’s wage. Who could refuse something like that? But wait! Order now, and you’ll get twice the satisfaction.
Writer and scholar Sianne Ngai defines a gimmick as “overrated devices that strike us as working too little (labor-saving tricks) but also as working too hard (strained efforts to get our attention).” Gimmicks are ubiquitous objects that at once promise to change your life and yet, in negligible ways. Studying the aesthetic of the gimmick can reveal the qualitative realities of living in late capitalism: prismatic candy colors, unornamented sans serif fonts, and a charismatic, somewhat macho, usually white, host. A more recent reality show, Shark Tank, reveals what the gimmick promises their inventors. Each episode features several different creators who pitch a prototype to a board of deep-pocketed investors. The lucky ones snag a million dollar deal. To many who volunteer to appear, it seems worth the risk of what happens to the losers, which is public humiliation on national television.
One of my favorite gimmicky infomercials was the Magical Rainbow Sponge, created by a woman of grandmotherly warmth, Dee Gruenig. Looking back now, we might realize with clarity that the art kit was nothing more than a high-density sponge and ink. Gruenig’s exuberance comes across as overly hyper and bright, like a race car zooming through a brightly lit tunnel. But in a child’s eyes, money was like water needing to be spent on color, sensation, and distinction. Imagine owning a plaything that no one else has. Imagine being admired as much as the world admired Dee Gruenig. Lucky for my parents, children have short attention spans. Before I could dote for long upon a glorified sponge, the next commercial played. Seared into my memory are the Snuggie™ (a blanket with sleeves!) and the FlavorQuick Popcorn Popper™ (a bowl designed exclusively for popcorn!).
The history of avant garde art is often told as artists subverting or competing against dominant media, such as whatever premiered on television. We think of, for example, Andy Warhol eating a hamburger in 1981 or Chris Burden’s bizarre late-night invasions into the unconquered 1970s airwaves. The global pandemic accelerated a change in high art’s aversion to low art tactics: Art Basel launched online viewing rooms, and blue chip art galleries broadcasted virtual tours through Instagram. Desperation drives even the stiffest upper lips to embrace what they have spent their whole lives defining themselves against. High art is what they think they are; low art is what they’d rather not be. After wrapping up filming a virtual flower arranging workshop at Special Special, Mackenzie Younger remarked, “I felt like I was on QVC.” Art needs to sell in order to survive. So why pretend that we are any different from home shopping networks? And so, our subsequent exhibition Special Special Shopping Network was born.
Luxury design, too, has adopted 1990s and early aughts nostalgia for the infomercial. There is perhaps no other body more scrutinized by consumer culture than a woman’s, which makes Kim Kardashian West’s shapewear line Skims the perfect antidote for invented ailments, diagnosing every bump and crease as a pathology that can be smoothed out into a seamless hourglass silhouette. Her own celebrity persona follows the trajectory of the gimmick: at first a laughingstock, even reviled (stop making stupid people famous!), her sheer prolificness has leveraged her eventual induction to the pop culture hall of fame. Not bad for a girl with no talent.
Kardashian West, whose meteoric rise and billion-dollar empire has capitalized on her own campiness, leaned into this commercial aesthetic with her Skims campaign. In the golden era of indie brands with perfumey marketing campaigns, Skims stood out by reverting to the corporatized infomercial format. However, as Darcie Wilder observed, what made her brand appealing was not so much its self-aware exaggerated artifice as it was its enduring sentimentality. It was not only an homage to a bygone era, but to her mother Kris Jenner’s own endeavors in selling everything from candles to stair climber equipment through the TV. Skims presented a portrait of womanhood painted with whimsical dollhouse girlishness. I was watching these ads through the gauzy veil of my childhood home, once again spread out on the beige wall-to-wall carpet and flipping through the five channels available to me. I wanted to believe again that all my problems could be resolved with just a quick phone call.
Commercials were once something that we thought could be tuned out, turned off, or skipped by changing the channel. Now, self-advertisement is a staple of daily life and even the very foundations for relationships and careers to survive. Although this reality implies that we are all now relegated to living inside our own infomercials, subsumed by cycles of endless self-promotion and self-abasement, perhaps we can cheer for each other even when we present something that particularly fails. A Flop era, or the day our bodies reached a critical exhaustion, would be considered the height of our youth. Hito Steyerl defended the poor image as a product of being well-loved. If the world ran on terms of endearment rather than cash, we would all aspire to be remembered through degraded yet glittery images, with fewer crisp edges and more self-effacement.