Ads we hate.

Advertising deconstructed.
Dec. 28 2009 9:55 AM

Ads We Hate

Slate readers sound off on the year's worst commercials.

I often wonder which facets of present-day American life will, upon re-examination 40 years hence, occasion ridicule and disbelief. Put another way: When they make a Mad Men-esque period piece looking back at 2009, which act will be the equivalent of smoking while pregnant? Is it watching football players concuss one another? Is it pressing cellular antennas to our temples? Whatever the answer, of this I have little doubt: Pharmaceutical ads of today—while comical to us—will be dumbfounding to the people of the future.

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A wind-up doll shills for the antidepressant Pristiq
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 mention all this because it's time again for "Ads We Hate," an occasional Ad Report Card feature in which readers sound off on commercials they love to despise. And since no one has nominated the two pharma ads that trigger my own personal retch response, I'm just going to put them out there myself:

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  1. The incredibly unsettling ad for the antidepressant Pristiq, in which a woman analogizes depression to being a wind-up doll that needs more winding. How to crank the key? With a pill, of course. Once this lady finds a drug that helps her trudge forward in her rut, life is perfect. Keep marching, little automaton! Don't look back! Or around! Mustn't stop marching!
  2. Abilify. Bonus points for a deliciously awesome product name. Points off for the ad's assertion: If the pill you've been taking for depression isn't doing any good, you shouldn't even think about not taking it—you should just take an adjunct pill, which will somehow activate the first pill and get you over the hump. (I assume Bristol-Myers is hard at work on a third pill to sell you when those first two aren't enough.) The increased risk that you'll have "thoughts of suicide" or "uncontrollable muscle movements that may become permanent"? They'll figure out more pills for that later.

Ahh, it felt so antidepressing to get that off my chest. But now I'll pass my bottle of pharmaceutical-grade hate to Ad Report Card readers. Tip it back, pop a few hate caplets down your gullet, and join in:

I nominate the recent and most disgusting entry in Charmin's series featuring animated bears doing you-know-what in the forest. Used Charmin still clinging to the buttocksof a not-very-tidy bear?—Kirsten H.

The toilet paper category rolled out a trio of horrifying ads this year. There's the Cottonelle spot in which a hammy Zach Braff voice-over equates wiping your butt with spending a day at a luxury spa. There's the ad for the Comfort Wipe toilet paper extension wand—a device that allows an obese defecator to reach around his haunches to his distant anus. And then this ad in which a young bear bends over, post-wipe, to display tattered t.p. still dangling from his furry taint. The scene is disturbing, and, to my dismay, causes me to contemplate the contents of the bear's stool. Is it studded with human jawbones, ground-up hiking boots, and shreds of flannel shirting?

I don't get the ad for Healthy Choice starring Julia Louis-Dreyfusas the spokesperson who doesn't want to shill for Healthy Choice.—Jo B.

Low-calorie microwavable meals are rarely objects of glamour, Jo. The dented cardboard box (freezer crystals clinging to its corners). The plastic film (freckled with beef-hued condensation). The implied dining experience (possibly lonely, likely depressing, certainly sub-ideal). A celebrity endorser with pizzazz seems like a smart way to combat all that dreariness. But Healthy Choice hired a celebrity endorser and then forgot to make her, like, endorse. In this ad, Julia Louis-Dreyfus expresses indifference—and possibly even mild annoyance—at the mention of the Healthy Choice brand. How is the viewer meant to feel when even the paid spokesperson can't manage to work up any love for the product? I imagine women watching this ad and thinking: If Julia Louis-Dreyfus is too cool for Healthy Choice, so am I.

The Palm Pre ads. What were they thinking? The ads feature a pale, creepy looking woman talking in a slow monotone. Are they targeting the under-40 cult member demographic?—Mike K.

Love her or hate her, this Palm Pre gal sure did grab my readers' attention. There's something eerily fascinating about actress Tamara Hope's ghostly visage and blissed-out speech pattern. (Personally, my gaze always locks on her strangely unvarying teeth. I think she may be a homodont.) The vibe of the ads is futuristic and serene—which makes sense for the launch of a new tech product promising to streamline your life. And I confess I adore the 1980s track that plays airily in the background. (Though I'd probably prefer to just watch Freur perform the song live in London in 1984.) But where does that startling imagery—pale, ginger-haired female in the foreground; bright blue sky and bright green flora in the background—derive from? Check out the cover of Blind Faith's self-titled 1969 album. Might look familiar. (Might also be unsafe for work. Unless your work is totally cool with you checking out topless 12 year-old girls.)

The Just for Men commercialwith the two little girls trying to set up their dad (divorced? widowed?) on a date just makes me want to puke. Their saccharine-sweet intonation of "pleeeeeeease" seals it.—Diana S.

Marketing to the male ego is a delicate art, Diana. 1) The man who is sensitive about his gray hair mustn't feel bullied or cornered. Thus the criticism of this dude's silver locks comes in the form of a gentle nudge from his adorable preteen daughters. 2) The man who is tempted to dye his hair would prefer not to acknowledge, even (especially) to himself, how central a role vanity plays in the decision. A plausible alternative scenario must be established—one that will grant the man license to prowl the beauty aisles of convenience stores with pride. In this case, the story is that this man is touching up his gray not so he can get more tail but rather for the sake of his children. A noble sacrifice. This fellow is a kind, considerate, raven-haired sex machine.

I find the use of the song "If You Want To Sing Out, Sing Out" in ads for a smartphone(the T-Mobile My Touch 3G) to be utterly bizarre, since they include the line "If you want to be me, be me." Really? They're saying identity theft is OK with them?—Kevin S.

To me, the amazing thing about this campaign is that it features an endless parade of celebrities—and yet the cumulative star wattage is dimmer than the screen of my smartphone after I've dropped it in a slush puddle. Phil Jackson? Molly Shannon? Dana Carvey? Avril Lavigne? Is there some sort of discount shopper's club where you can hire these folks in bulk, stacked on pallets?

There's an Audi adin which a bunch of kids are coming out of school and looking for their parents to pick them up. The problem is, all the cars lining up for them look exactly alike—beige, SUV-ish, boring. Then the black Audi drives up and the associated kid runs straight to it. I think what the commercial is supposed to be saying is that you should stand out from the crowd by driving this different car. The problem is that to me, the Audi looks exactly like the other cars. Except black. Am I missing something?—Rachel K.

No, Rachel, you're not missing a thing. The ad's tag line refers to the "unmistakable" Audi Q5. But having watched the ad several times, I think I can say with confidence: The Audi that's shown is a monocoque crossover vehicle, and as such is quite easily mistaken for a BMW X5, Acura RDX, Lexus RX, or any of the other many monocoque crossover vehicles lined up in front of that school. (If they're so different, why do they all have 10-point Scrabble letters in their names?) In fact, the spot almost seems like a sly fable—mocking the meaningless consumption-pattern nuances we humans carve out to preserve our illusions of free will. Which is a strange way to sell a compact SUV.

The Gap holiday ad this year—the one in which good-looking people dance around in overpriced skinny jeans and strange-looking hats and sing, "Go Christmas! Go Hanukkah! Go Kwanzaa! Go Solstice!"—is annoying and somewhat offensive. "Happy Dowhateveryouwannukkah"? What does that even mean? The holidays are a time to behave however you wish as long as you wear Gap clothes?—Amanda L.

I'm OK with the spirit of this ad's nondenominational tidings. But I keep imagining the premise of this ad transposed to real life. The notion that a group of adults would dress up in coordinated outfits and perform—with beaming, fresh-scrubbed smiles—a choreographed cheerleading routine to express their extreme fondness for Gap plaid shirts? When they're done rhythmically chanting about retail goods, do these people climb into a fleet of matching Audi Q5's? This sort of thing makes me want to spike my holiday eggnog with a jigger of rum, two jiggers of Abilify, and three jiggers of bleach.

Slate V: Celebrity voiceover quiz! How many can you identify?

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