Max Headroom is the ultimate talking head. Indeed, the character Britain’s Channel 4 bills as “the world’s first computer-generated talk show host” is nothing but head. A smirking screen image with rubbery yellow hair, unnaturally white teeth and a lantern jaw, he stutters in a manner that is alternately ingratiating and plain rude. He presents some of his interview subjects with complimentary golf shoes, but his recent encounter with rock star Sting was punctuated with huge yawns and murmurs of, “Stiiing, I’m so impressed]”
Created by a division of London’s Chrysalis Records, Max is a high-tech hybrid—the result of a 4!/2-hour makeup session for the man who portrays Max, Canadian actor Matt Frewer, 28. Even then, technicians show only one frame of Frewer for every 12 frames shot—to produce a jerky effect. No matter: in Britain Max has become a bizarre cult hero whose series attracts more than one million weekly viewers. And although Max’s show has never been shown on North American network television, his face is quickly becoming one of this continent’s most sought-after marketing commodities.
Now, in a promotional blitz that vies with Max himself for sheer energy,
spin-off products are spreading his bionic image throughout book and video stores. Among them are two new paperbacks—Bantam Books’ Max Headroom’s Guide to Life and Random House’s Max Headroom: 20 Minutes into the Future, as well as Karl-Lorimar’s 60-minute video.
There are also Max Headroom sunglasses, posters, T-shirts and video-games. And now his programs are about to air on this side of the Atlantic. Last month ABC TV contracted the program’s producer and co-creator, Peter Wagg, to make six one-hour action-adventure episodes scheduled to première next March.
The network is building on the recognition Max has already earned through commercials, specifically a series of Coca-Cola Co. ads now airing across North America. Jabbering suavely from a monitor, Max invites a pair of teenagers to “try Co-coco-co-coke.” Apparently, Max’s message is being heard. According to a company poll, the character is now recognized by 76 per cent of U.S.
teenagers. Said Coca-Cola spokesman Randy Donaldson: “He’s funny, he’s colorful. We think he’s the perfect spokesthing.”
Spinning endorsements off a television character is a familiar advertising gambit. Miami Vice’s Don Johnson, for one, appears in a Pepsi commercial. But the marketing of Max is ironic: his creators at Chrysalis initially conceived him as a satire of media techniques. The original TV movie, Max Headroom: 20 Minutes into the Future, told the story of Edison Carter (Frewer), investigative journalist star of Network 23. Carter stumbles onto the story of his employer’s use of “blipverts” —concentrated ads that cause some viewers to explode. When he starts unravelling the scandal, the network tries to have him killed.
Escaping, he rides his motorcycle straight into a descending barrier that reads, “MAX. HEADROOM 2.3 m” and falls into a coma. With Carter unable to return to the screen, the network tries to maintain his ratings by having its in-house computer genius create Carter’s head on video. The resulting automaton becomes a hit.
Channel 4 premièred 20 Minutes into the Future in April, 1985, and it, too, was a surprising hit, prompting network officials to authorize a weekly pop music talk show featuring the babbling Max as host. Now Maxmania is spreading. Canadian cable channels are negotiating for broadcast rights to the shows already seen in Britain. Dubbed versions of that series have been sold in Spain, West Germany, Italy and even Japan. And in Britain the latex-jawed personality will launch a new talk show series this month with his own Christmas special.
Meanwhile, Coca-Cola has ordered more Max commercials for most of its North American markets, including a French version for Quebec. Despite the risk of overexposure, Frewer is confident that the character has a long future ahead of him: “As long as we’re able to stay one step ahead of the game,” he said, “and make sure that he stays
surprising, it will probably continue.” Or, as the arrogant creature himself puts it in Max Headroom’s Guide to Life, “I don’t like to blow my own French hormone, but I’m good at what I do.”
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