In 'The Learners,' advertising is so seductive, even the art directors can't resist their own campaigns.
An advertising career has always held the allure of mind control: the ability to persuade an insatiable nation to buy something based on a slogan, an image or a dream—even if they don't really want the thing itself at all. Consumers like to think that they are impervious to the siren song of bigger, better and faster. But our credit-card statements betray us. In Chip Kidd's second novel, "The Learners," a young graphic designer lands his first job at a small, tired ad agency in 1960s New Haven, Conn., and he soon learns that the art of persuasion can have ugly consequences. Assigned to the Krinkle Kutt potato-chip account, Kidd's hero, Happy, spends his days hunched over a layout table designing ads for the New Haven Register and swapping clever word-play greetings with his overeducated colleagues. Lunch can't come soon enough, and no new accounts are on the horizon. One day a small job lands on Happy's drawing table: the Yale Psychology Department needs to round up subjects for a memory experiment. Seduced by his own ad—Kidd reproduces it in the book—he volunteers himself and is subjected to a series of tests with drastic punishments for failure. The experiment forces him to re-examine a past tragedy and question his future.
Kidd captures the predigital art department just right. Most designers still keep around some Xactoblades, non-repro blue pencils and white masking tape, just for old time's sake. (Or maybe that's just NEWSWEEK designers.) Still, it's not surprising that Kidd, 43, has re-created this world with the kind of care you'd see on a million-dollar ad campaign. He has been referred to as graphic design's "rock star." He's designed book covers for authors as diverse as Cormac McCarthy ("All the Pretty Horses"), David Sedaris ("Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim"), Joe Eszterhas ("American Rhapsody") and "Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography," which looks like it's wrapped in Charlie Brown's yellow shirt. Before Kidd, book jackets tended to be pretty and pleasant—they made for an attractive package, but not much more. Kidd saw his job as turning the physicality of the book into an art object in itself, and one that conveyed the essence of the work. His stark, menacing cover for Michael Crichton's "Jurassic Park" became a symbol of the novel itself, and made its way from book to film, T shirts and lunchboxes.
You can see a lot of Kidd in Happy. While pitching the Buckle Shoes account, he tinkers with the idea of a campaign that doesn't show the product at all. The client just laughs at him. Kidd's best, and most twisted, moments come when he examines the industry's evolving forms of content—the introduction of metaphor, wit and irony—as consumers become aware they're being sold. Kidd seamlessly weaves real-world detail into his fiction—brushed-aluminum office furniture, Jackie O. ensembles—while offering primers in typography and design tools. Happy is often lost in flashbacks to a childhood of secret decoder rings, Tarzan radio shows and Winsor McCay's pioneering comic strip "Little Nemo in Slumberland." But the plot's central historical nod is to Stanley Milgram, the Yale psychology professor whose controversial 1961 "obedience" experiments form the basis for the book's memory study. The language in Happy's recruitment ad is identical to one that actually appeared at the time.
"The Learners," like the AMC drama "Mad Men," is the latest to exploit the ironic parallels between our time and another era where new technology and restless twenty-somethings were looking forward not back. Set in the months after another presidential election about "change," the ad men at Spear, Rakoff and Ware can see the sans serif writing on the wall, especially an advertising director named Sketch, who spends hours painstakingly rendering inked drawings of giant, smiling potato chips while silently despairing about the rumors of changing Krinkle Kutt ads to feature photography. "It used to be a gentleman's business," says one copywriter. "Now it's a horse orgy!" If they could only see how big the orgy's gotten now.