Snide Advertising Is Bad for Business and Society
"The presentation's tomorrow, so let's make sure we know our usual responsibilities." In an oft-broadcast FedEx TV ad, a so-on-top-of-it junior executive fluffs up his staff in reverse: "Jeff, you keep feeding me old information. Dean, I need you to continue not living up to your r?sum?. Sue, you're in charge of waffling. Rick, can you fold under pressure for me?"
Element of mean: BBDO New York's TV spot for FedEx highlights a dysfunctional staff. While clever, it is an example of creative that is sarcastic and malicious and demands sacrificial victims.
Rick, it turns out, can indeed fold "like a lawn chair," while our protagonist sets off for FedEx Kinko's to do what his dysfunctional staff clearly cannot. The ad by BBDO New York is clever. It is also snide; employing the nasty tone that seems to dominate advertising as America slouches toward the terminus of the Bush Age.
There are few barometers so reflective of modern life as TV advertising. It makes sense. Take the culture's most facile minds, challenge them to pry cash from an increasingly tapped-out audience, and what do you get? Commercials built on sadism, on derision, on one-upsmanship -- in a word, "snide."
If you look up "snide," you find synonyms such as "sarcastic" and "malicious." Snide advertising possesses a governing syntax that demands, to begin with, sacrificial victims. Consider another FedEx ad in which the boss contemplates using the package service internationally. "Bill," the exec tells a subordinate, "put a pin in China." After several egregious misses, he chides the geographically challenged young man. "You have no idea where China is, do you Bill?" Bill, of course, does not, and he collapses to the floor, writhing in humiliation.
Another building block of snide advertising is physical aggression. Consider the quite literally shocking ad for Priceline.com in which William Shatner enters the house of a frustrated online vacation shopper and stuns him with a Taser before sitting down at the man's computer. "Did I zap your daddy?" Shatner coos at the man's disquieted child. "Yes, I did," he admits, "but I saved him lots of money." "Clockwork Orange" ultraviolence is similarly top-of-mind in a recent ad for Chevrolet's new Malibu. In it, a female jogger runs blindly into the side of a parked car. She gets up and runs into it again. This carnage will stop, the voice-over assures us, because "soon there will be a car you can't ignore."
Snideness is the leitmotif of sexy slapstick that predominates in ads for domestic beer bottlers, the bottom feeders of American advertising. A recent ad for Budweiser features a pool-playing babe who lines up a shot and knocks out her opponent with a ball to the forehead. She then brings him to with a whiff of foreign "stinky beer" borrowed from a nearby swain who is clearly not going to be getting any tonight. "Are you all right?" the babe whispers to her reeling but Bud-sanctified victim. "I've never been better," he says, head seemingly whirling with thoughts of the pleasures that await.
The bottom line of snide advertising is a kind of Darwinian "survival of the snappiest," requiring that you get the last word in any exchange and that it be a "gotcha." "Can you handle it?" taunts a black-leathered vixen as she exits her black Suzuki XL7 sedan and throws the keys to a similarly garbed male model in the process of trading his motorcycle for her car. As he tosses the keys back, he growls with the nanny-nanny boo-boo that passes for wit these days, "Can you?"
Sophistication is clearly out of fashion in the Zen of snide advertising, as in the Comcast cable ad featuring a helicopter hovering over heads of cabbage bobbing in the ocean. As the vegetables are pulled up in a rescue basket, the narrator intones, "Save a lot of cabbage," which is both brilliantly on message and breathtakingly dumb.
Going for dumb
In snide advertising, dumb is a good thing, something frequently partnered with "cheap," with ads relying on static, ridiculously simple figures like the "Roaming Gnome" lawn ornament or, as in ads for the U.S. Postal Service, everyday inanimate objects engaged in allegedly ironic riposte.
Simple-minded is also the mode of choice for the soundtrack of snideness. Why hire expensive orchestras or prickly composers when the tackier, less original the music, the better -- particularly when set to a rumba beat?
While imbecile scenarios, shoddy visuals and cheesy music are a good start for snide advertising, it is ultimately the announcer who seals the deal. Over the past decade, the very vocal timbre of announcers in advertising has shifted. Where male announcers once were avuncular baritones connoting weight and trust, sonorous Don Pardo voices today have become exaggerated Saturday Night Live shorthand for "We're in on the joke, dummy; aren't you?"
The replacement is a younger, less plummy advertising voice that, in the case of the male, has gone up a good half-octave while the female advertising voice has descended a similar fourth. They seem to be merging into a whiny, unisex modulation, the better to convey a deconstructed, Ty Pennington, "too-cool-for-school" ambience.
Voice of dismissal
Here we come to the crux of snide advertising: the ability to communicate that you and your product are too hip to so much as work up a spit to actually sell the merch; that the very process of making the ad, like most other human endeavors these days, is barely worth the effort.
"No, the question isn't whether you car has features like a 40-gig hard drive. It isn't about sunroofs, sapelli-wood accents, pop-up nav screen or any of that," sing-songs actress Kate Walsh in a voice redolent with dismissal for the very features that differentiate Cadillac from Chevy. "No," Ms. Walsh drones, "the real question is: When you turn your car on, does it return the favor?"
Poor General Motors is simply out of its phenomenological depth on this one, although the campaign's affected ennui does explain the three-day beard growth that is a requisite for male advertising models these days. Earth to art directors: Lose the stubble. Gillette is going broke and your boy looks grubby, not cool.
Nowhere is snide advertising's stubbly syntax more weirdly on display, however, than in ad campaigns of fast-food chains such as McDonald's, Wendy's, Burger King and Taco Bell. They all command us to "think outside the bun," doing so in gravelly locutions that are as dyspeptic as they are unappetizing. How these colicky, adolescent voices increase sales of Nachos bel Grande may be apparent only to members of the righteously pissed-off generation at which the high-pitched, dog-whistle of snide is directed.
It was once considered commercial gospel that the relative affluence of America could be deduced from the length of women's skirts: The more skin that season, the higher the Dow Jones was likely to go. We had all better hope that the descent into snide is not a reverse indicator, welcoming us to hard times with ad campaigns based on a hardening spirit, a lack of tolerance and an egocentric meanness that characterizes so much of today's advertising. Ultimately, historians will look at TV advertising as an original art form, one that, for better or worse, helped shape the modern American mind. This being the case, it behooves marketing professionals to understand the difference between subtle irony and idiot snideness and aim for an advertising denominator cognizant of the maxim that expansive, confident consumers part with their cash far more readily than do angry, fearful ones.
Richard Rapaport is a San Francisco Bay Area writer and radio commentator. He is working on a series of essays about the spread of Zero Tolerance thinking into the national psyche called 'Welcome to ZT America.'
Photo: A. Nottebohm