The most annoying commercials in the universe.

Advertising deconstructed.
Aug. 11 2008 6:50 AM

Ads We Hate

The most annoying commercials in the universe.

The slogan on Greyhound's most recent ad campaign: "There's a reason you've never heard of 'bus rage.' " A clever line, extolling the alleged laid-back nature of bus travel. Two problems. 1) I myself have experienced "bus rage"—every single time I've ridden a bus. 2) The ads went up just in time for the occurrence of what must be the absolute worst case of bus rage in history—an incident in Canada in which a Greyhound passenger beheaded his seatmate with a knife and then began "hacking off pieces of the victim's body and eating them." If you hadn't heard of bus rage before, you have now!

Which brings us to the topic at hand: another edition of the "Ads We Hate" mailbag. Yes, it's Ad Report Card readers' chance to sound off on commercials they love to detest. Commercials so bad, they deserve to be murdered and eaten.

Seth Stevenson Seth Stevenson

Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.

I'll get things started with one of my own recent unfaves: the Lincoln Financial Group spots in which people's older, future selves travel back in time to offer guidance. In one, a man is sitting on a plane preparing for takeoff when suddenly his wrinkly future self takes the adjacent seat, looks over, and commends his younger self for saving money by flying coach. After some anodyne advice about the importance of financial planning, the future dude stands up to leave. "Where are you going?" the younger man asks his elder self. "Back to first class; we can afford it now," smiles the older him.

So many problems here. First, the passenger manifest would show two people with the same Social Security number boarding the flight. TSA red flag! But more important: The plane would explode the instant the old man sat down. We all know that meeting a past/future incarnation of ourselves will cause a violent rip in the space-time continuum. And finally: Screw you, future me! You think you're better than present me? It's crowded back here, and there're babies crying! So cough up the first-class ticket, gramps, or I buy a yacht and drain your nascent retirement accounts. Yup, I'll be paying the penalty for early withdrawal, too. We'll see who's smug then!

But wait, there's an even worse Lincoln Financial spot: A woman is waiting in a hospital hallway, her husband apparently in grave danger, when she meets her future self. "How's he doing?" asks the supernatural visitor, and the woman replies that she doesn't know. The future her then launches into an earnest lecture about the importance of good investing. ("We have a plan to help grow and protect our money throughout our life.") Only at the very end of this speech does she casually tack on the information that, oh, by the way, the husband will be fine. So if you knew he'd be fine, why'd you ask? And how dare you make that poor woman sit through a pitch for a brokerage firm before revealing the fate of her husband. Yeesh, future lady. Way to bury the lede.

Ah, it feels good to get that off my chest. Now let's pass the hate bong around to my readers. Take a nice big hit and then let it all out:

The most frustrating ad I've seen in awhile is the one from Chasetouting the fact that users can check their credit card information via text message—while shopping for a 70" HDTV with the Queen song that goes "I want it all, and I want it now!" blaring in the background. It seems irresponsible to suggest that you ought to be out spending thousands on a TV if you don't even know about how much debt you're carrying around. The ad must be effective, since it's still on the air, but I saw it again recently and noticed that the dialogue has changed. The original starts off with the wife/girlfriend saying to the man, "You're right, we need a new TV." In the current version, she has a second line, delivered from off-screen: "Just don't go overboard." I confirmed this today while watching a two-month-old TV recording that contained the original commercial.

—Brian M.

Lots of mail about this Chase spot. Many readers noticed the added line, and I did, too. It seems the "I want it all" ethos may have felt spot-on at the time of the ad's conception but didn't quite fit the national mood as the economy began to implode. Perhaps Chase can keep tweaking the spot as conditions change on the ground. Fall 2008: "You're right, we need a new TV. The big one you bought a few months ago was repossessed." Spring 2009: "You're right, we need a new TV. The littler one you got last fall was stolen by a gang of unemployed financial services executives—they've been looting the neighborhood for food and valuables." Winter 2010: "You're right, we need a new TV. We can watch it from our underground bunker while hiding from marauding animals and zombies."

I especially enjoyed your article about inappropriate musical choices in television commercials. On that note, I wonder if you've seen this spot for Wishbone salad dressing, which uses the song "Bump" by Spank Rock. Sure, they didn't use any of the lyrics, but I have to wonder why they'd create an association between "delicious vinaigrette dressings" and one of the filthiest songs I've ever heard.

—Noreen T.

Well, the ad does say they're changing "everything" about salad dressing. I'd argue that "Bump" is the perfect soundtrack to accompany that mission. Why shouldn't a vegetable vinaigrette conjure sentiments like "You get it from behind, in just Chanel pumps"? For their next ad, I suggest they use "Toss My Salad," by underpublicized genius Filthy Sex Toy. (Given Filthy Sex Toy's graphic lyrics, I must sternly warn you that what you will see should you click on that link is in no way safe for work. And yet I must also stress that fabulous entertainment awaits beyond.)

Don't know if you've caught the ad with the tennis game run amok from the Ladders, but it's truly awful. There's a well-groomed, patrician-looking fellow trying to play tennis when a pack of undesirables invades the court. They're sloppy and crude. Some are clearly minorities and, worse than that, many of them are chubby. Unfortunately, they changed the last line of the ad from "the premium job site with only 100k-plus jobs and only 100k-plus people" to "only 100k-plus jobs and only 100k-plus job-seekers." It was perfect when they didn't mince words about the site's clear feeling that some folks are just better than the unwashed masses and shouldn't be asked to travel the same crowded byways, even on the Internet.

—Michael M.

This ad for an online, high-end jobs listing site features another re-edited voice-over. Before the change, the ad was off-the-charts offensive. After the change, it's still pretty outrageous. They should have at least made the protagonist a woman or Asian or something. As it is, the ad seems to boast that the Ladders offers its services only to fit, attractive, well-bred white men. And don't get me started on the notion that some of us are inherently "100k-plus people." What happens when we quit our law firm jobs to volunteer in a soup kitchen? Do we become zero-k people? Or is the 100k-plus designation written into our superior DNA?

What's up with those incredibly crappy Nintendo DS ads? (You know, the ones with random celebrities making grunting noises while they play a game—long shots with no dialogue, or action, or sense.)

—Kareem E.

I'm a huge fan of the DS. You haven't lived until you've played Tamagotchi Corner Shop. But I agree: The ads are bizarre. Generally, an endorsement from a popular young celebrity is supposed to make the product on offer seem cool. This campaign somehow manages to turn the tables, making celebrity itself look pathetic and solitary. Consider the Liv Tyler spot, which shows her doing Brain Age quizzes alone in her room. Wow, glamorous! I wish I could be just like Liv Tyler, sitting around by myself ... doing math ... (Also, she's just a terrible actress here—scrunching her lips, knitting her brow, and emitting strange, glottal warblings. Though, come to think of it, that's a fair description of her performance in Jersey Girl.)

Given the complete meltdown of the real-estate market caused by buyers purchasing homes they could not afford, I think it would be great to revisit how horrible and nasty this Century 21 adtruly was. They should make a new ad, but this time the husband can berate his wife for being a mindless spendthrift. I wonder if Suzanne is helping to pay the mortgage.

—Sean F.

This ad may turn out to be a lasting artifact of the housing bubble, appearing as an illustrative clip in documentaries decades from now. I hated the spot—which features a wife bullying her husband into buying a house—when it came out in 2006. At this point, I mostly just find it comical. (Though I'd note that I'm a renter.) I imagine the hectoring wife and her appropriately cautious husband are feeling the pinch right about now as their rate adjusts. Meanwhile Suzanne, their enabling Realtor, is going to night school in pursuit of a new career.

I remembered you comparing "Vince wit Shamwow" to Billy Mays, and thought you might enjoy seeing Mays' new spiel, selling health insurance.

—Andrew L.

This ad is kind of amazing. Watch Billy Mays' hand gestures—they never stop! Hands go out, palms facing each other. Hands come back in, fists balled. Hands go back out, index fingers extended. It's either OCD or some sort of primitive sign language. I think it's happening because he has no tangible product to demonstrate. They should have let him use a sheaf of insurance documentation to wipe up spills with. Or maybe a wallet card for dabbing on grout?

OK, I suppose that's enough hate for now. But you can always express your rage—or adoration, or puzzlement—via e-mail to adreportcard@slate.com. I'll be taking a short break from the column (my future self advised me to take a vacation), but my able replacements will field all your rants and queries.