Slate readers on the most stupid, annoying, and wrongheaded commercials on television.

Advertising deconstructed.
June 28 2010 12:14 PM

Ads We Hate

Slate readers on the most stupid, annoying, and wrongheaded commercials on television.

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Welcome once again to Ads We Hate—an occasional feature in which Ad Report Card readers sound off on their least favorite recent ads. My own ad hate has been subdued of late, perhaps because I've been watching a lot of commercial-free streaming Netflix, but I did manage to work up irritation at a Lincoln campaign featuring bland covers of great songs. Sia does the Church's "Under the Milky Way." Shiny Toy Guns do Peter Schilling's "Major Tom (Coming Home)." Cat Power does Bowie's "Space Oddity."

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 can't abide the all-things-to-all-people, unhappy middle ground Lincoln's going for here. The songs are old enough to hook middle-aged consumers, but updated with inoffensive contemporary aesthetics. The covers themselves are inexcusably limp and wussy. The idea that someone could turn "Space Oddity" into anodyne mush (I love you, Cat Power, but it had to be said) boggles the mind. And I continue to have no idea what the Lincoln brand stands for. Enervated comfort? Listless luxury? I can't generate enough ire to care.

But let's pass the hate torch to my readers, who have plenty of spite to go around:

A recent telephone company ad boldly rips off Jeanne-Claude and Christo' s artwork and concepts. I dislike this ad because it means that a creative team, an ad agency, a marketing department, a director, and probably hundreds of people involved in making this ad were all OK with stealing the ideas and not giving the artists credit. Everyone who worked on the ad should write Christo a letter of apology.—Paul K.

This spot initially stuck in my craw because it trades on the genius of one of my favorite artists: musician Nick Drake. Drake's "From the Morning" plays during the ad, because nothing says "We provide great cellular service!" like the achingly beautiful songcraft of a 1970s suicide victim. I was sort of OK with the use of Drake's "Pink Moon" in a Volkswagen spot a decade ago; that ad—in which a quartet of friends skip a loud, boozy party in favor of driving around on a moonlit evening—seemed vaguely in tune with Drake's vibe and respectfully showcased his music for a whole new generation of fans. Here, Drake's freakishly perfect little jewel of a song is treated like one more throwaway backing track.

At least we can assume the Drake estate got paid. Christo evidently got nada from AT&T, despite the fact that this ad shows orange fabric wrapped over iconic landmarks in outdoor settings—a strikingly obvious bit of plagiarism if you've ever seen Christo's "The Gates" or his wraps of the Pont Neuf and other structures. The poor artist is now forced to watch a spark from his visual imagination transformed into a metaphor for blanket cell phone coverage. AT&T has even added a disclaimer at the end of the spot, clarifying that Christo and his late partner Jeanne-Claude had no involvement or affiliation with the ad. (Look out, William Wegman—it's only a matter of time until the Verizon "Can you hear me now?" guy is replaced by a Weimaraner wearing glasses and a dark blue windbreaker.)

Have you seen the ad for Pledge Multi-Surface in which a woman is imprisoned in a glass cage and assigned to clean everything in it? The woman clearly wants to leave and says she has family obligations. She is denied exit from the glass box by a haughty, imperious male voice that demands she first render her cell spotless. I'm a guy, not easily offended, not very PC, not militant about much of anything, but, good grief, this ad must make women grit their teeth in frustration.—Tony M.

This ad is pretty awful, Tony. I kept waiting for the voice-over man to say, "It dusts the surface or else it gets the hose again." But when it comes to encouraging female neuroses regarding the unclean, I'm awarding the blue ribbon to MyClyns, an anti-germ spray. Watch as "a mother, a wife, and a worrier" aggressively blasts her own daughter in the face with splurts of atomized liquid—as though the kid were a misbehaving kitten. Yeesh, lady, your little girl is guaranteed to suffer some sort of deep, Freudian crisis the first time she tries an amusement park flume ride.

There's a series of ads in which an adult male does unfair things to children. The ads are very unpleasant to watch. Having seen the bicycle, pony, and other versions many times, I can't remember what the ads are for. Maybe that's a good thing.—Nicholas P.

Apparently, these ads were not scripted, and those kids were not acting. That's real frustration, confusion, and resentment you're seeing on their cherubic faces. It makes me cringe every time. I've never been fond of hidden-camera prankery and would like to see the whole Punk'd aesthetic fade away for a good long while (although I acknowledge that eventually the next Allen Funt or Ashton Kutcher will rediscover its fiendish power). But could we at least agree that kids should be exempt from cruel tricks?

That's not even the biggest problem with these ads. As you point out, Nicholas, the spots are weakly branded. No corporate logo or mention of the company until the very end. If we do manage to remember that the ads are for Ally Bank, we will closely associate the brand with this total jerk who is mean to small children. Amazingly, Ally has made him the recognizable face of their campaign without showing us a counterpart good guy who represents the bank. Worst spokesman ever!

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I nominate the new State Farm ads, with the annoying guy walking into the Figaro Cafe and commenting on insurance rates or cutting off the State Farm rep as she tries to talk. What a smug a**hole.—Erin M.

Speaking of horrible spokespeople, who picked this disturbingly handsome dude? I'm convinced he got the gig because of his overly pleased, Tom Cruise-ian dimples and equally Cruise-ian ability to shake his head while smiling ever wider. First, he disturbs countless cafe patrons by talking loudly about the state of the insurance marketplace. (Watch the seated guy at the beginning of the spot shoot the camera an annoyed look.) Then he rudely and repeatedly interrupts when a State Farm agent attempts to inform us about insurance options (which seems a rather counterproductive move within the context of a State Farm commercial). Why are we being directed to pay attention to this unidentified jerk who wants to hear himself talk, instead of to that State Farm employee who wants to help us buy coverage? It makes zero sense. They should tell Mr. Handsome to go away and redredge his dimples or something.

I hate the ads for Wendy's where they make fun of some unnamed fast food chain's value meals for being too small. Could anyone possibly complain about fast food portions being too small nowadays?—Dan F.

I now instinctively shy away from "deluxe" menu options out of fear that I'll receive a 7,500-calorie heap of ground beef, mayonnaise, and bacon gristle. The Friendly's near me has begun offering a "Grilled Cheese BurgerMelt," which replaces the buns of an ordinary burger with two grilled-cheese sandwiches. I guess what I'm saying is: You're right, Dan, the problem with fast food meals labeled "deluxe" is rarely a lack of caloric abundance. Wendy's would have been wiser to emphasize low prices, as overflowing portions seem to be a given.

I'd like to nominate an ad for worst of the year. I just saw it, and all I could do was watch with disbelief, then horror, and then back to disbelief. It's for limited edition Huggies jeans diapers—they're supposed to look like denim, but the effect in the ad is that a toddler is walking around in Daisy Dukes. The announcer says, "I poo in blue," and the slogan is, "The coolest you'll look pooping your pants."—Elly T.

As best I can tell, this ad is real. It's unclear whether Huggies was inspired by the Saturday Night Live parody commercial for Huggies thongs. It's also unclear who thought it was a great idea to make an ad in which the theme is people ogling toddlers' buttocks and groins. But in a world that tolerates jorts, I guess jiapers were inevitable.

That Kay Jewelers ad with the couple in the log cabin, taking shelter from the storm, is more than a little creepy. "I'm right here. And I always will be." Are they targeting possessive male stalkers or pathologically submissive women?—Mac M.

It does seem as if someone on the set of this ad should have encouraged that fellow to ditch his hyper-intense monotone. It's chilling. The ad conjures a jailer-detainee mood, out in that isolated cabin. "Now you can surround her with the strength of your love," says the announcer, while computer graphics show the necklace transforming into giant, encircling metal restraints.

As for the subtext: Diamond sellers generally pitch noncorporeal permanence. Consider DeBeers' long-running slogan, "A Diamond Is Forever" and the ethereal shadow figures in its ads. When the man in this Kay ad promises he "always will be" here, the camera cuts away from his face to instead focus on the shiny bauble he holds in his hands. Our subconscious hope is that these precious gems will serve as eternal vessels for our emotions, retaining the love we express through them inside their impregnable shells long after our bodies have disintegrated. "Don't let go, ever," pleads the woman as she clasps her new necklace. If only her creepy man could keep that promise into the beyond.

And with that, I'm stepping away from Ad Report Card for a year to go enrich my mind. Slate's excellent John Swansburg will be taking the reins while I'm away. I hope you'll treat him as fabulously as you've always treated me, and will flood him with your thoughts, questions, and angry rants about advertising. Send your comments to adreportcard@gmail.com.

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