Lamisil's stomach-turning ad.

Advertising deconstructed.
July 14 2003 1:46 PM

The Beast Under Your Toenail

Lamisil's stomach-turning ad.

When animated roaches tremble in a television commercial, you can be certain that a heroic can of bug spray is about to make an appearance. This is a time-honored strategy, but it's tougher to make it work than you might think. There's a delicate balance in making such a spokesvillain creepy enough that you want to dispatch him—but not so revolting that you simply want to change the channel. A recent ad for a medication called Lamisil illustrates the same sort of challenge. You can see it at above.

The ad begins with an animated, and rather hideous, creature. He has a big wide, thin-lipped mouth, slitty eyes, jutting ears, a tail, creepy little spots, nasty tufts of hair jutting out of his body. Also claws. He says his name is Digger. He is a dermatophyte— "you know," he says, "a nail infection." He darts over to a huge toe—a normal-looking, human toe. "All I want," Digger says, "is to get in here." Then he reaches up, and pulls the toenail back.

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This is horrifying. I wasn't taking notes, but I think the first time I saw it I said something like, "Aaaaaarrrrrrggghhhhhh!"

Digger then wiggles under the toenail. "You can't get me with clippers or those surface treatments you try on your own," he says, oblivious the yelping home viewer, as he dances across a landscape meant to represent the tender area under your toenail—"your nailbed," he calls it, as he begins clawing into the pinkish landscape, and a dozen more creatures just like him materialize and also begin digging. The landscape runs brown and cracked.

Cut to: a picture of a sick-looking toe, as an announcer asks: "Do you have discolored or flaky nails?" Before you can scream, "NO I DO NOT! WHY ARE YOU TORTURING ME?" he goes on to explain that "Millions of people do," and Lamisil, a prescription pill, may solve the problem, and so on.

Why would Novartis, which makes Lamisil, want to inflict such a disturbing set of images on an unsuspecting public? Well, because presumably some members of that public really do have discolored or flaky nails, and they probably really want to do something about it. It's true, as many a culture pundit has said for years, that we live in a more niche-oriented world than ever. Many a marketing pundit has further predicted that in the future, every product will be sold through niche channels, neatly matching audience with product. But Lamisil raises the obvious question about this theory. Will there, some day, be a world in which it is possible to micro-target dermatophyte sufferers? How? Will there be a special channel for them? A magazine? Will something about their spending patterns at Amazon.com give them away?

Well, maybe. Meanwhile, many more of us will see the likes of Digger than ever wanted to. And if, some day, we find that our toenails are suddenly yellow and flaky, we will quite likely remember him. We might remember him like a bad dream, but we'll remember him. And that's all the makers of Lamisil really want.

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

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