An ad that will make you sick.

Advertising deconstructed.
Oct. 20 2003 11:32 AM

Suckling Sucks

A Quiznos ad proves that not all publicity is good.

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Unlike Subway, with its popular and theoretically inspirational spokesman, Quiznos is a sandwich chain that markets itself with an attitude. Past ads have included the chain's founder in his underwear and a woman being shot in the neck with a tranquilizer dart. But if the e-mail received by Ad Report Card is any indication, the latest example of this strategy is getting an unusual amount of attention. This may be good news for Quiznos, or it may not be, because a lot of those e-mailers are confused and appalled. You'll understand why when you see the current spots, which are available on the Quiznos site.

The first ad (it's labeled "mild" on the Web site) shows two men sitting on a public bench. One taunts the other for the latter's failure to buy a Quiznos sandwich on toasted bread and his willingness to settle for some inferior, non-Quiznos offering. "What," he says, "were you raised by wolves?" Here the other man pauses and stares off in a kind of reverie. We cut to an image of him, curled up (and wearing the same suit) with a family of wolves, who are licking his face. Then we cut back to the park bench, where this peculiar non-Quiznos eater smirks at his tormenter and says, "Yes. I was. Hm."

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The message here is clear enough: If you don't eat Quiznos, you are some kind of freak. Fine.

But the second ad ("spicy" on the Web site) is the one people are interested in. It's basically the same, except that this time when the freak flashes back to his wolf roots, we see mama wolf laying on her side, and the guy, along with a baby wolf, energetically sucking her teat.

Now, just the fact that Quiznos has an ad that causes the viewer to think of the word "teat" is troubling enough. (I guess maybe you could tell yourself that he's "suckling," but I don't find that very pleasant, either.) But the puzzle of this ad is even more complex because Quiznos is, after all, selling food.

It's not unusual—in fact it's commonplace—for an advertiser to use a "shocking" image to slap viewers/consumers out of their stupor so they'll pay attention long enough to absorb a brand name. There was, for example, the case of the Verizon ferret (man is bitten on tongue by ferret and can summon help with text-messaging service). And actually, as these things go, this isn't a bad example of the tactic: It's a pretty funny commercial. But while many advertisers seem to operate on the theory that anything memorable—even something that's memorable for being horrid—is good, I'm not sure that's always the case. And this ad is a good example of how such thinking can go awry.

While the spot is funny, it's just not funny in a way that makes much sense for a food-seller that is trying to make you hungry for its (presumably) delicious products. When a potential customer walks by your restaurant, do you want the sight of your logo to call up a gross-out mental image? Given that the Quiznos message is probably something along the lines of "We sell sandwiches," it's probably smart to avoid linking that to the message, "You are feeling vaguely nauseated." All of which goes to show that even if an ad is entertaining and memorable, it can still end up sucking.

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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