Next to the tony world of Mad Men, the ads of Dr. Jonathan Zizmor seem refreshingly artless, even naïve. For nearly 30 years, the subway dermatologist has made the same basic appeal using a set of transparent devices: the before-and-after photo, the zero-interest payment plan, the cheerful rainbow. No coyness, no Don Draper-style sublimation, no hidden agenda.
But in his new commercial, which began airing on local stations on Oct. 5, Zizmor breaks the fourth wall and draws attention to the construct of the Zizmor ad itself. Poking a little fun at his self-created universe, he lifts images from his old subway banners—Isabel R.’s before-and-after shot, the connect-the-dots zit diagram, the balloons—and weaves them into a new ad made of ads. Aside from the live shots of the doctor speaking to the camera, the ad consists entirely of 2-D images and animations. Cutouts of his office assistants float around the signature Dr. Z. rainbow, gently bobbing to a throaty jingle that begins, “Thank you, Dr. Zizmor…” It’s the kind of bizarre, almost trippy clear-skin universe you might enter if you fell asleep on the train—a lullaby dreamscape in which the staff advance and recede on an abstracted city skyline, their arms forming circles to signify zero interest. In fact, it’s the first Zizmor commercial that invites the viewer to consider what exactly is being “signified.”
How did Zizmor go from hawking fruit acid peels to dabbling in pastiche? For starters, he hired Brooklyn-based video and performance artist Ben Coonley to create the spot. This new collaboration, not to mention the resulting ad, takes everything we thought we knew about the ubiquitous Dr. Z. and throws it out the window. It suggests a level of savvy and self-awareness we never suspected all those hours we sat on stalled trains, contemplating the fortune of Isabel R. In invoking Zizmor’s legendary subway persona with a wink, the new ad suggests a discord between man and myth. Think of the before-and-after shot: If the doctor gave his public image a makeover, doesn’t it follow that he knew it didn’t look so hot before? If Dr. Z. isn’t the naïve local pitchman of our fantasies, could he actually be a marketing genius?
“I got a lot of heat when I started,” Zizmor said, recalling his MTA debut in the early 1980s. “No one was on the subway,” he added, referring to his fellow doctors. “No one was even advertising.”
He speaks softly, in a rapid mumble fuelled only in part by the iced quadruple espresso in his hand. It was the end of a workday, and he and Coonley were sipping coffee in an exam room overlooking Third Avenue. Now 64, Zizmor looks like a slightly faded version of his ageless subway photo; come January, he’ll be old enough to qualify for the services of MetroPlus, another MTA advertiser (though his income would just as quickly disqualify him).
Zizmor grew up on West End Avenue—he now lives in Riverdale—and graduated from Albert Einstein College of Medicine in 1969. He completed his dermatology training at NYU’s Skin and Cancer Clinic and was open for business by 1973. In 1976, he moved into his own office, then on 68th and Park. He wrote his first book, Super Skin Deep, the same year, and in 1981 he was included on a list of America’s best doctors in Harper’s Bazaar. By the early 1980s, his waiting room was filled with Park Avenue ladies. But he wasn’t satisfied.
“I was getting all my fancy-schmancy people, but I wanted to see the rest of the world,” he said. “Most people don’t even know a dermatologist.”
When an ad salesman suggested he try placing signs in the Hunter College subway station, he gave it a try. A steady stream of new patients followed, and so he upgraded to ads in the subway cars themselves. Some of his colleagues turned a cold shoulder, but Zizmor had found his calling. Like a blemish-zapping evangelist armed with the latest lasers and a copy of proto-Photoshop, he descended to underground tunnels to spread the gospel of “beautiful, clear skin” to the average commuter.
“Many doctors see themselves as God, or above the average person,” he said. “I ride subways. I’m a man of the people.”
A television campaign was the natural next step, and in the mid-1980s Zizmor set out to make a TV ad. In one of his first attempts, he sits behind his desk and delivers his pitch in one continuous take. He doubles as the announcer, reading his own phone number off a pink “call now” screen.
“We could only do it at two in the morning when we were done with the office,” Zizmor said. “We didn’t know what we were doing.”
Later ads featured real patients introduced by a professional announcer declaring, “Good-bye acne” and “No more dark spots!” The phones at Zizmor’s office buzzed with activity, and those refrains became as ubiquitous in the 1980s as Isabel R.’s headshot would become in the 1990s.
“That’s a real patient,” Zizmor said of Isabel, as he went to find the original photos she had sent him, which he had used in the subway poster. He reappeared with a piece of cardboard bearing the triangle-haired brunette’s before-and-after shots.
“I think she married a police officer from Staten Island,” said the doctor, who still sees Isabel occasionally. “It’s really sort of the American dream.”
On the topic of his own ubiquity, he grew philosophical.
“You know, I never wanted to be famous,” Zizmor said. “It was an accident of life.”
Despite the apparent dismissal, he seemed rather pleased with his own myth.
“Many people think I’m dead,” he added.
Coonley laughed, and Zizmor leaned in, just getting going.
“Many people think I don’t exist. And many people come in, like, in awe that I’m really here,” he said. “One of my patients was going away, going through security. She had a prescription with her, and the guy said, ‘Is he still alive?'”
In his ads, though, Zizmor never acknowledged this mystique; that changed when he began working with Coonley. The two met last year, when the artist invited the doctor to appear as himself in a faux ad for the now-defunct New York Underground Film Festival. Addressing the camera, Zizmor trumpets his expertise in “underground art” as shots of his subway ads flash by. He goes on to position himself, without so much as a wink, as the obvious care provider to an “underground” film audience. Zizmor liked the festival piece so much that he tracked down Coonley to ask for his help with the new ad. The artist, who has presented work at the New Museum and the Moscow Biennale (where he showed two videos casting his cat in a pair of sitcoms), was at first hesitant to work on a straight-up commercial. But, he said, his fascination with Zizmor won out: “I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life wondering, ‘What if…'”
Coonley, who is 32, has always admired Zizmor’s posters for the way they achieve coherence despite their competing graphic elements.
“It’s that Adobe Illustrator aesthetic—all line art and simple shapes—but it doesn’t seem like anything is off limits,” he said later. “They have the look of somebody using a software package and not trying to hide it, but sort of going with it and using all the tools in the toolbox without restraint.”
Though Zizmor gave Coonley a lot of leeway to make the commercial, the artist really just wanted to create a video version of what Zizmor would do in a subway ad.
“There was a lot of back and forth where I was like, ‘So…would you want it to be like this?'” said Coonley. “And then he would make a million other suggestions. And, of course, to be true to this thing, I would take all of them.”
In this way Coonley set up the perfect backdrop that would, in effect, allow Zizmor to out-Zizmor himself—like a musician doing his own songs as karaoke. The setting is more zany and processed than usual, but front and centre it’s still Zizmor delivering his same straightforward message.
For his part, Zizmor acknowledges the relative narrowness of the comedic zone available to doctors.
“Doctors can’t be too clever,” he said. “People who say a clever thing like, uh”—he improvised a slogan—”‘Bonus for your bones!’ That’s too clever.”
For all the commercial’s self-awareness, Zizmor dwells on that part the least. Mostly he just admires the ad, grateful for its contribution to the cause of beautiful, clear skin.
“You made the girls look like Miss America,” he told Coonley, referring to the staff who posed for the ad. “They love it.” (Mrs. Zizmor also makes an appearance, sporting a satiny red gown and sweeping updo.)
Zizmor may claim that he rose to local fame by accident, but if that’s true, it was a sequence of accidents he walked deliberately into. Saying that Zizmor didn’t mean to treat New York’s acne is like saying Bloomberg didn’t mean to be mayor. After Zizmor’s colleagues got used to his subway presence, they started asking him, “Does the ad work?” His reply: “Of course! I wouldn’t run it if it didn’t work.”
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This post was originally published at West Side Spirit: Upper West Side News & Community, and is re-published here with permission.