Verizon's new pitchman: a vicious ferret.

Advertising deconstructed.
Nov. 11 2002 10:22 AM

Verizon's Vicious Ferret

Can a nasty varmint sell you phone services?

Everybody knows that sex sells, but what about violence? It may sound counterintuitive to associate a product or service with physical pain in the course of a pitch, but in the age of Jackass: The Movie and Fear Factor, getting a kick out of other people's physical discomfort is hardly a taboo. Particularly if there's something kinda funny about it. This theory has beaten its way into the marketing mainstream and is on display in a couple of recent TV spots: one for Verizon mobile messaging (see it here, via Ads.com) and one for the Sony PlayStation (see it here).

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The Verizon ad: So there's this guy sitting at home, taunting his ferret. (A scenario we can all identify with, right?) Suddenly the ferret leaps at his head and latches onto his tongue. The guy reels around in agony, but is able to use Verizon text messaging to call for help.

Bite this. We've seen " ouch ads" before, of course, but you can't deny that there's something Jackass-esque (Jackassian?) about a man with a ferret on his tongue. That's gotta hurt! Anyway, the ad is obviously meant to be funny, and it is. A vicious ferret is sure to get the viewer's attention, and the violence of the moment is defanged, so to speak, by its absurdity. Maybe you wince, but surely you grin. And as it happens the gag actually works to underscore an actual product feature: Maybe you won't need text messaging for precisely the same reason this guy does, but you probably come away from the ad knowing what its makers are trying to sell you. Of course, you might also come away associating Verizon with agony. But again, remember the lesson of Jackass: Agony sells.

The PlayStation ad: The setting is a self-defense class for women, centered on a male "assailant" in a padded, protective suit. An instructor barks at the women to get over their inhibitions and "attack" him, exhorting them to yell, "I am not a victim!" But this empowerment lesson quickly gets out of hand. Within seconds the ladies are really beating the hell out of padded-suit guy. He sinks to the floor mat with a look of desperation and fear in his eyes. He struggles up to face them again, and a special effect sweeps across his tormenters, "marking" each with a little shimmer of light. At this point the action shifts to a scene from a PlayStation game, The Mark of Kri, where a brawny hero similarly takes on a vicious gang of baddies, and a voice-over explains that that the game allows you to "mark your opponents." The hero smashes and kicks his enemies, presumably to death. And we switch back to padded-suit guy. The ladies are now scattered about like so many bowling pins, except for one, whom he smacks to the floor with a backhand to the face.

No defense? If you're selling a video game that's all about raucous beat-downs, then of course the related advertising will revel in raucous beat-downs. This is much less surprising than using pain to sell a wireless service. On the other hand, the direction this ad goes in is pretty disturbing. Not only do we get a self-defense expert beating up his class, but the commercial actually plays violence against women for laughs. Even by the standards of gaming ads, that's a pretty surprising gambit. Unfortunately, I suspect the number of PlayStation fans who will be offended is probably pretty small. And advertising is all about knowing the sensibility of the target jackass—I mean, customer.

Thanks to readers Brian Aubel and Mark Miller. 

Rob Walker is a columnist for Yahoo Tech, a contributor to Design Observer and the New York Times, and the author of Buying In.