That gross new ad for Metamucil.

Advertising deconstructed.
Feb. 3 2003 1:26 PM

Immoral Fiber

That gross new ad for Metamucil.

For some brands, controversy is a natural. Companies that strive to seem edgy, like Nike or Nintendo, will push the envelope in their advertising, and even if they're criticized, it doesn't really hurt their calculatedly provocative image. Other brands, however, do not go looking for trouble. Like Metamucil, for example. But sometimes, against all odds, controversy (or maybe "controversy") finds them anyway. Even laxatives.

In a recent Metamucil spot, a park ranger—or rather, an actor portraying one—stands aside Old Faithful and explains that the geyser has been "well, faithful," for thousands of years. One of the tourists asks, "What causes it to stay so regular?" And here we cut to a scene labeled "Earlier," in which we see the faux ranger mix up a glass of Metamucil and dump it into the geyser hole. "Stay regular," says a warm voice-over, as we return to the present—and watch Old Faithful heartily spew.

One can easily imagine this spot as a parody of a laxative commercial, drawing sharp rebukes from companies that make such products and consumers who buy them, complaining that there's nothing funny about constipation. But that's pretty much the opposite of what happened when the mini-controversy kicked in.

A few weeks after the ad began airing, the New York Times ran a story in which the superintendent of Yellowstone National Park (where Old Faithful is located) said that the ad might encourage people to dump things into the geyser and also complained that it suggested that Old Faithful might need any kind of treatment, fiber-based or otherwise: "To suggest that it's not natural, that it is enhanced by a product, is a little disconcerting."

Procter & Gamble seemed as surprised as the National Park Service was and basically responded by wondering how anyone could take such an over-the-top ad as anything but a joke. (Nevertheless, the company will now have a tag line on the ad making it clear that viewers should not throw things into geysers.) And really, P&G has a point: No rational person could take the spot seriously.

On the other hand, how many rational people actually laughed—and how many winced? While the spot is hardly going to spark any threats to the natural wonders of our parks system, it's not particularly clear why Metamucil benefits by telling its story in the form of a gross-out joke. I supposed the idea is to make us associate Metamucil with Old Faithful's "regularity"—a typically soothing message for a laxative maker to suggest. But there's not much soothing about a product that's meant to relieve constipation triggering a violent explosion. And you don't have to believe that Metamucil could cause anything to spew from the ground in a great flare rising dozens of feet into the sky to find that image … somewhat irregular.

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