Monday, January 19, 2009

nonsense sells?

I try to apply interpretive charity to just about everything, but I'm having a hard time with this ad: (hat tip - angry asian man)

Here's what seems to be happening: In each of the mirror panes, there is a different 'version' of the white customer - a black man (on the left), a Latino man (in the center) and an asian - evidently Filipino - man (on the right). Each of the reflections match up with the customer, except the last, who is inexplicably holding a bag of Skittles. This prompts a query from the customer and a shout (in Thai) from the tailor, provoking a bizarre exchange with the Tagalog-speaking reflection. Eventually the Filipino version of the customer kicks the mirror, shattering himself, and the tailor finds this funny.

So far as I can tell, that is what happens. But what on earth is going on? What is the ad's metaphysical conceit? Is the mirror a gateway to a series of alternate universes, each featuring a racial counterpart to the reflected subject? Why is the tailor's race consistent in each universe? (And why is he Thai?) Or is this is a weird sci-fi thing; are the reflections employees of the tailor, mimicking the customer before closed circuit cameras projecting to a series of screens? Does that explain why the tailor appears to be berating the Skittles-eater?

I doubt there is any correct answer to those questions, and I suspect this is part of the ad's strategy. The commercial is so strange that many viewers will attempt to puzzle out what they have just seen - to engage in interpretation - and will probably seize upon the plot-turning Skittles bag. (Notice that the only line of English dialogue explicitly references the product.) Which makes for a very natural question: what does Skittles have to do with what is going on here? The answer - a conceptual connection between the multiracial theme and Skittles' "Taste the Rainbow" tag line - isn't particularly satisfying (it certainly doesn't explain anything about the plot). But it does require the viewer to think about Skittles.

the absurd and the advert

Dave Munger at Cognitive Daily recently discussed a study regarding the relation between humor and memorability in advertisement. Viewers often remember funny ads, but do they remember the products advertised? The study's upshot seems to be that humorous commercials do work best when the product is directly relevant to the joke, but only if the brand is not previously associated with levity, and only if the audience is not high in "need for humor". Munger poses an interesting challenge:

Of course, this opens a paradox for advertisers. Clearly humor works best when it's unexpected and related to the product. But if an brand develops a reputation for producing humorous ads, whether it's Bud Light or Mutual of Omaha, won't viewers eventually begin to expect humor regardless of how serious the company's line of business?

Does the Skittles ad avoid such pitfalls? The commercial is not merely funny; it is bizarre. In order to (probably unsuccessfully) attempt comprehension of the message, a viewer must actively engage with the product. Presumably that hikes memorability, and it might also counteract any prior expectations of humor associated with the brand. Nowadays, it's hard to know what to expect from a Skittles commercial.

The Skittles ads come from TBWA/Chiat/Day, an agency known for its offbeat work (including the famous 1984 Apple ad and the contemporary and increasingly irritating 'Get a Mac' campaign). Seth Stevenson at Slate's Ad Report Card doesn't think highly of the Skittles ads (part of a sometimes creepy series), on the grounds that these days, "freaky-ass ads are a dime a dozen". But maybe that's because this thing works - people remember ads that just don't make sense, and they remember trying to figure out what the product has to do with the insanity.

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