Commercials are growing creepier. Some devolution is easy to trace; 1990’s Viagra ads begat modern “male enhancement” commercials, and mid-80’s Teddy Ruxpin ads begat Charmin’s current war on dingleberries. But from what market-tested pathology sprang BK’s intentionally disturbing ‘stalker’ ads? At what point was baby spit-up cleared for prime time? Are we approaching the age of “Mr. Show’s” Globochem ads?
Our own decade saw one especially ominous development in terrifying advertising. In 1999, photorealistic CGI confined itself to cinema. In 2009, photorealism has swept Madison Avenue. And where gaming and Hollywood still struggle in the depths of uncanny valley, advertising can content itself with inanimate objects. What happens when you combine skyrocketing bad taste with infinite creative possibilities? Here are my top five offenders:
5. COCA COLA
Sprite’s 2006 ‘subLYMONal” campaign neatly showcases both sets of problems. The original “Sublymonal” spot – marking the first cameo by a sperm cell in a national ad campaign (at 1:06) – merely highlights plummeting standards. But check out the “Spa” spot for inhuman Lovecraft CGI horror. What other soda could make your soul want to take a shower?
2008’s “Mecha-Mosquitos” spot celebrates Honda’s new subcompact hatchback, specifically its deftness in evading monstrous winged parasites. A direct descendant of Toyota’s 2006 “Pump Spider” ad, this nightmarish imagery condenses every childhood trauma into one searing media blast. If the flying monkeys from “The Wizard Of Oz” traumatized an entire generation, what psychic dent has Honda left on today’s youth?
In last autumn’s “Live Your Moment” spots (capping a year of ill-conceived Microsoft media campaigns) a variety of couch potatoes grin with the vacancy of profound brain damage. The camera leisurely pans around to expose the backs of their heads, which have indeed been gutted by a gigantic melon baller. These ads tap into an impressive range of universal fears – injury, mutilation, loss of self, cyborg manipulation – but everyone I know who viewed the ad was so horrified they couldn’t even name the product (it’s Xbox).
In Axe’s “Chocolate Man” spot, a human transforms into candy, then willingly offers himself to passing cannibal supermodels. It’s a good thing the “Dark Temptation” Body Spray is strictly for guys; a “chocolate” woman getting dismembered and eaten by white men might not fly.
Surprise! Greenpeace handily wins the gold with 2008’s “Energy [R]evolution” spot, in which JFK’s “Berliner” speech has been colorized and swapped for an anachronistic CGI harangue on climate change. In a single stroke, the swashbuckling NGO has set a new precedent for manipulating the dead for political propaganda. Their marketing agency rep defends the spot, saying, “we actually believe this is something he would have said”. Although this sets the bar pretty high (apparently you have to actually believe that a dead person would agree with you before making them do so!), it’s going to be a real bummer seeing Kurt Cobain stump for Sarah Palin in ’12.–Sam McPheeters