An off-puttingly sexual ad for Halls Refresh.

Advertising deconstructed.
Nov. 9 2009 3:11 PM

Can Cougars Sell Cough Drops?

A mom and her son's roommate share a naughty moment in a spot for Halls Refresh.

The Spot:It's move-in day at a college dorm. A student asks his new roommate's mom whether she'd care for a Halls Refresh. The young man and the middle-aged mom suck on their lozenges, staring lasciviously into each other's eyes. We hear their thoughts. "So juicy!" thinks the mom. "Yeah, she likes it," thinks the student. The woman's husband and son walk in on this intimate moment. "Mom!" shouts the horrified son as the dad recoils. "New Halls Refresh with moisture action," says the announcer. "Surprisingly mouthwatering."

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.

This ad has been catching flak for its mildly disturbing visual of a frumpy mom making bedroom eyes at a college-age nerd. The American Decency Association posted a breathless, run-on rant on its Web site, sounding particularly distressed about the fact that the ad shows "mouths moving in sexually suggestive ways." A Slate colleague is also grossed out by the ad's use of the evocative phrase "moisture action."

True, the ad is a wee bit icky. But I'm having trouble working up much outrage. I'm more interested in a fundamental marketing question: Who, exactly, is this ad supposed to reach?

I generally expect ads to use actors matching the product's target audience. Thus ads for Viagra feature older men, while ads for Barbie dolls star little girls. But in this ad, the characters shown enjoying Halls Refresh represent two different demographic categories with starkly different buying habits. Is Halls hoping to tempt fortysomething women with this new line of lozenges? Or college-age guys?

Let's first examine the evidence suggesting that the ad is meant to charm young dudes:

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Cadbury, which owns Halls, is for the most part a candy company. Its offerings include Bubblicious, Sour Patch Kids, Swedish Fish, and countless chocolaty goodies. Unlike other Halls products, Halls Refresh is being pitched on the basis of its "mouthwatering," candylike qualities—not as a medicinal remedy for a sore throat.

Candy ads these days tend to rely on surreal, absurdist humor. There's the Starburst ad in which a guy communes with a llama and the Skittles ad that shows a man with a prehensile beard. Cadbury actually owns another confectionary brand that uses nonsensical, dude-focused advertising: Check out the Stride gum spot in which a team of lederhosen-clad dancers assaults a young man in a parking garage.

This Halls Refresh spot seems like a close cousin to those crazy candy ads. It's easy to imagine the mom and the student chewing on Skittles instead of sucking on Halls. And, through prior reporting, I happen to know that the target demographic for Skittles is 15-17 year-olds. Because that's who buys candy. Young guys—not middle-aged women.

Case closed, yes? Not quite. Let's consider the evidence on the other side of the ledger:

First, Halls Refresh is sugarless. This is an attribute not traditionally prized by young fellas, who like to guzzle down sugary colas and munch on 500-calorie burgers. The young man shown in the ad surely wouldn't be watching his weight. But the mom might be.

Looking up Halls Refresh on a search engine, I found a bunch of blogs that had been given samples of the lozenge to review. These samples were handed out by people trying to promote Halls Refresh. What sort of blogs were the samples given to? Almost exclusively blogs written by professional women and stay-at-home moms.

A press release introducing Halls Refresh also suggests that the product was designed to meet the needs not of carefree young men but of harried adults. Its first paragraph declares that Halls Refresh is the perfect antidote whenever you get "the feeling that your mouth needs a refresher just as your presentation begins, when meeting the in-laws, when running errands under a tight schedule …" Not a lot of 18-year-old guys spend their time worrying about meeting in-laws. Or running errands, for that matter.

The clincher? Cadbury aired this ad during the premiere episode of Cougar Town, the Courteney * Cox-starring ABC show about an older woman who is forever scheming to date younger men. Referring back to my cast-your-target-demographic rule, I have to assume that a show with Courteney Cox in the lead role is meant to appeal to Courteney Cox-age women. Though it's not totally clear to me why portrayals of cougardom are fun for middle-age women to watch. Is it an affirmation that they are still sexual beings? Or do they relate to Cox's foibles and take comfort in the show's sympathetic humor?

I have similar questions about the Halls Refresh spot, if it is, indeed, aimed at middle-age ladies. Do women fantasize about sharing a naughty moment over a lozenge with a scrawny dweeb? Being caught by their husband and child mid-suck?

Perhaps Cadbury—which has for the past several years been diversifying out of chocolate and into sugar-free chewing gum and cough drops—wants to reach a new category of consumer but doesn't yet know how to market effectively to anyone over 19. Or perhaps it hopes to split the difference, by pitching Halls Refresh to young men as a candy while telling grown-up women it's a functional cure for dry-mouthed moments.

Grade: C-. The ad's goals seem muddled. Worse, it's not funny. Cadbury didn't respond to my inquiries by press time, so I can't be sure about their intentions. But what do you think? Who, if anyone, does this ad appeal to? Send your thoughts—and suggestions for other ads to review—to adreportcard@gmail.com.

Correction, Nov. 9, 2009: Due to an editing error, this article originally misspelled the first name of Courteney Cox. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

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