MTV2's creepy screaming baby.

Advertising deconstructed.
July 28 2003 11:34 AM

Pretty Creepy Baby

MTV2's weird, shrieking doll.

This baby talks, but will his message help sell MTV2?
This baby talks, but will his message help sell MTV2?

Basically, no one likes a screaming baby. This seems like a safe assertion. And yet, the MTV spinoff channel, MTV2, has chosen as its mascot and spokesbeing—a screaming baby. Of course, it's not a real baby, it's a cheap-looking plastic doll. And it screams in complete sentences. Or at least sentence fragments. This doesn't sound very promising, and in fact it sounds creepy. But it's actually sort of funny. Creepily funny. You can see several of the "talking baby" ads here.

The ads all have an aggressively low-tech feel—like they were shot with a stationary camcorder in a comedy club in some place like Charlotte, N.C. Which they were. Each ad starts with a view of a little stage; the baby doll pops up, held and waved around by clearly visible hands. His mouth doesn't move—an offstage voice simply shouts a manic stream of babble that we are meant to imagine comes from the baby. As baby talk, it is mostly … inappropriate.

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"Jay-Z and Beyoncé are on fi-yuh!" he yells in one of the ads. (He has a bit of a Southern accent.) "And they're in a video together on MTV2! TAWKIN' BAY-BAY!" This is another one of the talking baby's verbal tics: He occasionally simply yells, "Talking Baby" for no apparent reason. In this particular spot, he suddenly lowers his voice and says somewhat lustily, "Boy, I bet that Beyoncé smells good. So fresh and so clean …" And so on. In another spot, he screams, "Metallica!" and then a string of bleeped-out expletives before doing a stage dive and lifting his little plastic hand, which is giving the devil-horn symbol. In another ad he declares, "Hip hop is the biscuit, and 50 Cent is the delicious gravy!"

I suppose that all of this seems stupid. And yet, every time I see one of these ads, I start grinning and then find myself momentarily becoming Beavis and Butthead—"Heh. That baby's yelling." And on some level that seems to be the desired effect. The guy who masterminded the ads explained to AdCritic.com's e-mail newsletter that they are aimed at "jaded" young men. "It doesn't seem like an ad," he contends. "It seems like something someone just shot in their basement."

That's half right. It does seem like something shot in the basement, but even the most Beavis-y among us know an ad when we see one. And we know that we can enjoy an ad for reasons that have nothing to do with whatever's being sold—which is why I have a feeling that these spots have a better chance of turning the Talking Baby into a minor cultural phenomenon than making a hit of MTV2 (whose big selling point is that it shows actual music videos, which the "real" MTV has more or less given up on).

So, what is it, exactly, about the idea of the articulate baby? Such creatures have already been the basis of surprisingly successful movies  and a TV show. (And then there was the famous computer-animated dancing baby, who didn't talk, but busted adultlike moves in cyberspace and on Ally McBeal.) Of course the little fellows in Look Who's Talking and Baby Bob are all about cuteness, and perhaps attracted fans (I'm not one, so I can only guess) by toying with the interplay between sweet innocence and adult wisdom. This new Talking Baby is anything but cute, and in his case the appearance of innocence disguises crudeness and seething anger. Charlotte comedian Sean Keenan, who created the Talking Baby for his act at a club called The Perch, commented to Advertising Age columnist Richard Linnett that he's hoping the ads might lead to a Baby-based TV show or film. And I'm either too jaded, or maybe not jaded enough, to bet against it.

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

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