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).

Advertisement

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 contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and Design Observer and the author of Buying In.

TODAY IN SLATE

Foreigners

More Than Scottish Pride

Scotland’s referendum isn’t about nationalism. It’s about a system that failed, and a new generation looking to take a chance on itself. 

What Charles Barkley Gets Wrong About Corporal Punishment and Black Culture

Why Greenland’s “Dark Snow” Should Worry You

Three Talented Actresses in Three Terrible New Shows

Why Do Some People See the Virgin Mary in Grilled Cheese?

The science that explains the human need to find meaning in coincidences.

Jurisprudence

Happy Constitution Day!

Too bad it’s almost certainly unconstitutional.

Is It Worth Paying Full Price for the iPhone 6 to Keep Your Unlimited Data Plan? We Crunch the Numbers.

What to Do if You Literally Get a Bug in Your Ear

  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 17 2014 8:15 AM Ted Cruz Will Not Join a Protest of "The Death of Klinghoffer" After All
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 16 2014 4:16 PM The iPhone 6 Marks a Fresh Chance for Wireless Carriers to Kill Your Unlimited Data
  Life
The Eye
Sept. 16 2014 12:20 PM These Outdoor Cat Shelters Have More Style Than the Average Home
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 15 2014 3:31 PM My Year As an Abortion Doula
  Slate Plus
Slate Plus Video
Sept. 16 2014 2:06 PM A Farewell From Emily Bazelon The former senior editor talks about her very first Slate pitch and says goodbye to the magazine.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 16 2014 8:43 PM This 17-Minute Tribute to David Fincher Is the Perfect Preparation for Gone Girl
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 16 2014 6:40 PM This iPhone 6 Feature Will Change Weather Forecasting
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 17 2014 7:30 AM Ring Around the Rainbow
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 15 2014 9:05 PM Giving Up on Goodell How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.