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What 'Project Runway' and Glenn Beck Have in Common

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Friday, Feb 12, 2010

At the outset, I admit that I used the shady rhetorical trick of finding incidental common threads and declaring them definitional. On the other hand, it’s the perfect huckster sleight of hand with which to skewer Runway‘s tiresome embedded advertising. When I spent some wonderful time in unemployment earlier this year, I developed something bordering on an addiction to right-wing radio (the guiltiest of guilty pleasures for an unrepentant liberal). While I loved to sit and argue by myself, I repeatedly groaned whenever the host would melt into tent revival testimonial for sponsors like the website that acts as your hard drive back up. Rush Limbaugh could be in mid-diatribe when suddenly he would segue into a seemingly personal anecdote that would turn into cheap shilling for gold, online meeting software or inhalable heavy metals. By ladling the advertising into the script, the players do far more then give advertisers a space to marketing themselves; they lend the brands their accrued authority and credibility. They advocate for these corporations rather than merely allowing advertising to fund the entertainment.


In an age where everyone purports to be a media critic and bias sleuth, it’s an awkwardly retro mode, an aesthetic choice that makes both Project Runway and talk radio gaudy. With the AM cognoscenti this tackiness amounts to a badge of authenticity, but on Runway, our supposed glimpse into the world of superior taste, it forces the show into constant, embarrassing interruption. This throwback in style and attitude where the “stars” of programs hold up cereal boxes and smoke Pall Malls on stallions is not the kind of homage that, in the demolition phrasing of the show, one could call “fashion forward”. 
  
Despite a stellar season so far, Runway‘s worst episode involved having designers create a red evening gown for people who survived various heart conditions that also incorporated the iconic red and white Campbell’s label. This is the latest in a long line of Runway episodes (see also Hershey’s) where the contestants have to deal with the design challenge and an unspoken challenge cooked up by Runway‘s greasy marketing team. At the very least they should use some theory to lipstick this pig. Try mentioning Andy Warhol’s avante garde decimation of the fine arts, drop Walter Benjamin’s name, do something other than bring out the CEO of a soup company and allow her to devour heart disease sympathy and stuff it into a cheap can. 


Besides that, Campbell’s, purveyor of canned sodium, is supporting heart health? Is this their idea of reparations? I eagerly await the Snicker’s episode that will help fight diabetes and force the contestants to translate nougat into couture. With plugs for the accessory wall, the hair salon and the make-up, why does Runway need to mold an entire episode around burnishing a brand’s image? There’s something to be said about the mutually reinforcing toxicity of it all. On right wing radio, their obsession with gold has sometimes folded ominously into rhetoric about Obama’s alleged apocalyptic affect on the economy. Given how much of the tangible economy gets tangled up in perceptions of the economy, it’s hard not to see this as an instance of where self-anointed “straight talkers” use their public persona to enrich themselves through doom saying. 


On Project Runway, the affect is more like noise that does nothing to uplift fashion or win new customers for the products. Shifting the tone would be a merciful quick fix (first the return to New York, next the freedom from TRESsemme tyranny), one that can’t seriously affect any company’s bottom line. Far more people get turned off by corporate cameos, than are compelled by the gowns to crack open some Cream of Mushroom. Substantively, right wing radio and Project Runway have nothing meaningful in common. But it’s fashion, the land where surface is everything, and this is the kind of guilt by aesthetic association that should stain Runway with shame.

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