The Last Days of Dada
The talking sheep who love Skittles, and other wacky ads that just don't work.
The Spot: We see a pair of sheep standing in a paddock. Wait—it turns out that these are talking sheep. With human heads. These freakish sheep-people chat with each other as they munch on some Skittles candies. Finally, a farmer walks by and shouts, "Hey, you two sheepboys—stop that jibber-jabbin'!" (Click here to see the spot.)
I'm really sick of ads like this. Enough already with the "twisted" humor. The willful wackiness. The over-the-top, absurdist scenarios.
Ads of this ilk are everywhere. The Quiznos spots with the yammering baby. The new Burger King ads with the jumbo-headed king. The Skippy ad with the stage-diving, Rastafarian elephants. I don't think these ads work as pieces of marketing. And I've grown immune to them as pieces of entertainment. So, why are they all over my TV?
I called up TBWA/Chiat/Day—the ad agency for Skittles—and talked to a pair of creative directors who'd worked on this campaign. According to them, the target market for Skittles is 15- to 17-year-olds. Which is older than they'd anticipated. (It surprised me, too. Doesn't the whole concept of "candy" feel very 'tween? It makes me think of recess and jump-ropes and cooties.) This older age group is wary of ads that, in the creative directors' words, "try to reflect our own ideas about who teens are and what they're interested in. So, we wanted to steer away from the kind of spot that shows a bunch of kids with skateboards."
Instead, they made the kind of spot that shows a dude's head grafted onto a sheep. And the rest of this Skittles campaign, viewable here, is nearly as bizarre. Another spot, called "Nest," features a mustachioed man who obtains his Skittles from the talons of a gargantuan, shrieking bird. A spot for Skittles' corporate sibling Starburst—made by this same creative team—shows a boy who sculpts a pretty girl's likeness out of Starburst candies. He then, to the girl's horror, chews off the sculpture's face.
Don't get me wrong: I do think that shocking weirdness has its place. For one thing, it's a great way to build some buzz for a lesser-known brand. I praised the infamous Quiznos spongmonkeys spot on these very grounds. (And also because it just tickled me. I found those levitating primates brilliantly outré.)
Skittles, however, is an established name that's already on kids' radar screens. The sheepboys don't need to boost awareness of Skittles as a product. They're supposed to shape the mood and meaning of the Skittles brand.
But what on earth do these sheepboys hope to convey? That the Skittles brand is edgy? That it's unpredictable and wild? If so, the whole effort seems futile when so many other ads reach for the same zany vibe. No distinct identity waits at the end of this well-trodden path. The bottom line: If everyone's freaky, no one is.
Of course, the ad guys will rush to point out that this spot also plays up product attributes. The sheepboys discuss how delicious the new "Smoothie Mix Skittles" are, with their blended flavors. (And the sheepboys themselves are relatively smooth blends of sheep and boy.) Fine. But this is just another irksome trend I've noticed, in which these ads want to have it both ways. They go totally nonsensical on us, yet still try to squeeze in a rational basis for choosing the product.
So, for instance, this Nextel ad—coincidentally by the same creative team behind the sheepboys and the cannibalistic Starburst sculptor—shows a trio of nondescript office workers grinding to a Salt-N-Pepa song. For no clear reason at all, other than that it looks sort of funny. Then suddenly, and unrelatedly, they spend a few seconds toward the end of the ad demonstrating their Nextel phones' advantages. The ad's central joke has nothing to do with the product. It's no accident that I remembered guys dancing to "Push It" but, until I watched the ad again, couldn't for the life of me remember what they were selling.
Likewise, Burger King's notorious Tendercrisp Bacon Cheddar Ranch spot—the one with a country song performed by Hootie (of the Blowfish)—tried almost desperately to focus on the sandwich at hand. The song had lots of sandwich-related lyrics, and there were even props like giant onions and buckets of ranch dressing. Of course, all anyone will remember is Darius Rucker (aka Hootie himself), the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders in skimpy outfits, and the generic spokes-hottie Brooke Burke—all of them thrown together, in a surrealistic stew, for reasons utterly unclear to us and utterly divorced from the product.
Now, all this said, there are still some things to like about the sheepboys. For one, the previous Skittles campaign was unbearably hokey, with rainbows that showered streams of Skittles onto smiling children. This ad is a major step forward. Also, I love the riveting performance given by the sheepboy on the right. (I'd call him the white sheepboy, but I'm confused about using race as an identifier when the organism in question is for the most part a cloven-hooved ungulate.) The way the actor slurps Skittles off that tree stump is both genius and disturbing.
In fact, this whole ad isn't half bad. It's even a little bit funny. Its problem is that it arrives at a time when freaky-ass ads are a dime a dozen.
C-. If a man/horse hybrid is known as a centaur, mightn't we call these creatures ... sheeptaurs?
Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.