An off-puttingly sexual ad for Halls Refresh.

Advertising deconstructed.
Nov. 9 2009 3:11 PM

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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: