Stupidest. Advertisement. Ever.

Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, University of Wisconsin - Green Bay
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Heaven knows there are so many stupid advertisements out there that it's hard to pick the stupidest one ever. I am particularly offended by food commercials. Ads where people loudly gulp soda or pour it into their mouths, wipe their mouths with their hands, smack their lips loudly and utter a loud sigh of contentment. Or loving close-ups of people opening their mouths as wide as possible, taking a bite that should, if there were any justice in the world, choke them to death, and then chew loudly with their mouths open. Whoever dreams those ads up should spend eternity afflicted with some hideous disease that combines social stigma, repulsion, and excruciating pain. Or maybe reincarnation as a tapeworm.

I can only see sound effects like those justified under three simultaneous conditions:

  1. It's in a monster or alien film where people are being eaten
  2. The actors involved are the people who make the sounds in the commercials
  3. They are actually being eaten, preferably from the feet up, and slowly.

Right now the only burger chain I patronize is McDonald's. Not that they're the best, but after Hardee's graced us with those sickening black and white pseudo-philosophical commercials designed to make us think they were deep thinkers for deciding to make larger burgers, I started hoping everyone connected with the chain, and especially the ad campaign, dies of something really horrible; slow, repulsive and painful. The Salvation Army lady who appeared in one, thanking Hardee's for donating all those burgers, should be forcibly converted to Islam and then used as a practice dummy for counter-terrorist training. She managed to completely destroy the good name of the Salvation Army in thirty seconds. Burger King merely runs commercials involving some idiot wearing a grinning plastic mask of a king. I don't feel quite the same loathing for these commercials. I'd merely be content to see everyone involved living under an overpass in refrigerator cartons for the rest of their lives.

Then there are the political ads. Right now (Fall, 2006) we're seeing attack ads from both sides. A well-respected local doctor, running as a Democrat, is being vilified because he "sued" patients. (He tried to collect past due bills). Just to show the stupidity is completely bipartisan, a decent Republican congressman running for Governor is being blasted for "refusing to return dirty money." (He's actually appealing a ruling from the State Elections Commission).

The problem here is not with the candidates, or the ad-makers, or soft money, PAC's, corporate gifts, or any of the panaceas often cited in the campaign finance reform debate. The problem is solely with stupid voters who let themselves be influenced by these ads. No voter with a coherent political philosophy, conservative or liberal, is going to be swayed by ads reporting some alleged minor misdeed. The only people who respond to those ads are uninformed people who have never thought about issues and are so ignorant of the way things work that they can't spot the deception.

Take the doctor who started collection actions against patients, for example. One ad tells the story of a family who asked the doctor to bill the insurance company, not them. All my medical bills say "As a courtesy (emphasis mine) we have billed your insurance carrier." It's a courtesy, not a right, and the bill is always the patient's responsibility. The doctor may not have had any billing arrangements with that particular company or may have had trouble collecting from them in the past. There may be any number of legitimate reasons why the doctor didn't bill the insurance company. The Republican candidate for Governor isn't "refusing to give back dirty money," he's appealing a (quite likely politically motivated) decision by the State Election Commission regarding the use of his Congressional campaign funds in a state campaign. He has a right to appeal - check it out - it's in the Constitution. Knowing these facts involves nothing more elaborate than reading the papers and your medical bills, and the only people likely to respond to either ad are people who don't even possess that minimal level of awareness.

All this reminds me of the Swift Boat campaign against John Kerry in 2004. Kerry may or may not have properly earned his Vietnam medals. I didn't vote for him in 2004, but my reasons were based on 2004 issues, not what happened in 1969.

And The Winner Is...

The above ad ran as a "public service" ad in the 1980's and 1990's after Nancy Reagan launched her "Just Say No" campaign against drug use. "Public service" ads are those smarmy ads put out by companies to show they have a social conscience while not actually saying anything. "Man-eating tigers and poisonous snakes are bad," they might say, "but on the other hand they may be essential parts of a healthy ecosystem. Of course, we also realize that people may not like losing their loved ones to tigers or poisonous snakes. The solution may be to create tiger- and snake-free habitats for people. It will take a national dialog to reach consensus on how to achieve this goal. But don't even think about abolishing the tax writeoffs we get for running these useless ads."

This one shows a pensive and very vulnerable looking junior high student saying:

Grown-ups tell us, "Just say no." That's easy for them to say. Maybe they forgot what it's like. At parties, at school, kids are saying to try this or do that, and they're my friends. I mean how many times can I hear I'm a loser. Sure I'm scared of drugs. It's just there's so much pressure. You want to say no. But you can take a lot of heat for it.

Well, prepare to be blown away by an amazing demographic fact. Looking at the kid's picture and the date of the ad (this picture came from a magazine dated 1991), I would guess she's about 30 now. And guess what. The peers she's talking about in the ad are still her peers. Amazing Fact of Demography Number One is that the people in your age cohort stay in your age cohort your whole life. They all age at exactly the same rate as you do. Amazing, huh? This means that peer pressure never stops. Ever. Right now the kid in the picture is probably under pressure to outdo her neighbors in putting on the most lavish birthday party for her kids. In ten years, she'll be wondering what she can do to outshine the neighbors who had their kid picked up from the Senior Ball by the Space Shuttle.

Of course, it is a little simpler for adults. There are more options for choosing compatible circles of friends and avoiding obnoxious people. But not always - just ask anyone stuck in a job with a rotten boss or boorish co-workers. Mostly I think adults realize that things that seemed to matter so much in school really didn't matter, that the social pecking order in school was essentially trivial and, well, juvenile. But every adult who buys some useless gadget because everyone else has one is testimony to the continuing power of peer pressure.

This ad is essentially a proclamation of the Debased Compassion Syndrome, which basically amounts to saying that a civilized society never expects people to do anything difficult or painful. Sorry, sweetie, we haven't forgotten how hard it is. We just don't care. The price of living in a civilized society is that you may have to do the right thing even if it hurts or exposes you to ridicule, discomfort, or even danger. In 230 years, over a million Americans in uniform have been killed doing the right thing. It's hard to say no to drugs. We know that. We expect you to do it anyway.

And get real. The Sixties had been over for two decades when this ad ran. There is nothing school kids face today that their parents, and increasingly, grandparents didn't also face.

Even better is IBM's suggested strategy. A computer simulation. Denouncing "Just Say No" as unrealistic and then expecting a computer simulation (running on DOS or Windows 3.1) to arm kids adequately to deal with social pressure is - well, there's no other conclusion than whoever dreamed that idea up must not have said no. In fact they must have fused their synapses into one huge molten glob. Play a few games of Flight Simulator and be qualified to fly a 747. Play Silent Steel and go take command of a nuclear submarine. Play Sim City and run for mayor of Chicago.

Oh, by the way, I'm not compassionate. The term "compassion" has become debased to the point of becoming meaningless. Basically all it means is you are willing to gratify others regardless of the cost to yourself, them, or society as a whole. All that matters is not facing the discomfort of having people think ill of you (peer pressure?). Compassion has become a synonym for moral cowardice. So don't restate the obvious. I'm not compassionate. And I'm proud of having some people think ill of me.


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Created 19 September 2006;  Last Update 30 August, 2011

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