Yes, we know you first heard of that new ad site for Brawny paper towels (brawnyman.com/innocentescapes), like, six weeks ago when your roommate IM’d you the link from an Internet café in Goa. But consider once more the fine-tuned perversity of “Innocent Escapes,” a collection of short clips in which, over and over, a blow-dried human incarnation of the iconic Brawny Man invites you into his cabin for some overhoneyed TLC and sympathy. “I’m glad you’re here,” he says, smiling at the camera, loosening his tool belt like some softcore Mr. Rogers. He was just building you a new armoire, he explains, or maybe crafting a rocking horse “for the kids down at the school.” Then comes the love: “I think it’s important to treat yourself, and you don’t do that enough,” he purrs about your regrettable shopping binge. He then prescribes tiramisu for the stress of “that thing you’re going through.”
By the fourth or fifth clip, Brawny Man’s relentless sensitivity has become brilliant parody, and the piece attains the sine qua non of all viral advertising: It has cut through the Web’s distractions to become, in its own right, an attraction. Whether it now spreads like SARS—or for that matter, like last year’s “Subservient Chicken,” that weirdass Burger King viral that clocked 14 million visits—remains to be seen. But already, “Innocent Escapes” has proved the injustice of the metaphor. Traditional advertising, if you think about it, is the true virus—infiltrating the bodies of TV shows, magazines, websites, and other forms more popular than itself. With the rise of TiVo, AdBlocker, and other ad-zapping tech, marketing must unlearn its parasitic ways or die. Or as Brawny Man himself might advise, it has to learn to let us love it for what it is.