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Adverting Insipid Ads

Philip Burrowes

Despite the onslaught saved for sweeps weeks or the fall, summer is not without its own debuts. Since Jaws (or Independence Day, depending on how you see it), the summer blockbuster movie has become a staple of American life. Geeks in the audience no doubt look forward to the annual intracompany crossovers of DC and Marvel Comics. Baseball combines an athletic diversion with time-honored Americana. What most people miss out on once they actually leave their happy but ultimately boring homes is the delightful appearance of new advertisements. They range from the mundane to harbingers of utter doom; the following are among the latter.

No service is cheaper to hawk than calling collect. Infomercial products may be less respected, compilation CDs “not available in stores” could be more bootleg, but nothing can beat (that is, be worse than) the sheer premise of collect calls. Essentially, not only is someone too cheap to pay for their own call, but he will go to extra lengths to save at least a buck or two. C-A-L-L-A-T-T has the advantage of the AT&T brand name behind it, while 1-800-C-O-L-L-E-C-T’s origins are more suspect.

Which is where Michael Jordan comes in. He is currently featured in a COLLECT commercial with Verne Troyer, an apparent nadir for one of the most marketable athletes ever. It turns out that COLLECT is offered by MCI Worldcom, for which Jordan is a spokesperson. So the problem is not that Jordan has simply lost his head and cheapened his name -- which would’ve explained his possible comeback plans. No, the issue here is the high-stakes war over calling collect. Targeting the low on cash and economically myopic is nothing new, as any college student with a credit card can tell you. Aiming for that demographic with a great fervor is another story. Considering its limited financial resources, the only logical capacity for MCI and AT&T to seek it out is as an agent of pure evil.

Some of you are probably totally lost by now, unable in your naivetÉ to believe that major non-tobacco corporations would inflict harm upon their customers. Mars Inc. is doing just that with its relatively new Sour Skittles product. Not because its introduction may foreshadow a trend of less innocuous confectionary combinations, nor because the carcinogenic characteristics of artificial colors are often ignored. In this case, it’s the ad and not the product (Sour Skittles aren't half bad) that is doing the harm.

For some reason, Mars Inc. chose to start a radio campaign in Spanglish for the bite-size candy. Here, Spanglish doesn’t refer to broken forms of Spanish or English that new practitioners of either language must use because of an inability to speak them well. True speakers of Spanglish can speak either fluently, but simply switch -- often in mid-sentence -- to whichever language fits the message best. When executed properly, it’s a beautiful thing and in fact the Sour Skittles ads seem to do it justice.

Yet when listening to the ads, one can never shake the feeling that something is off, and it is indeed inexplicable why Sour Skittles of all products befits the format. Maybe they don’t fit, and Mars Inc. has simply artificially co-opted a popular and euphonic form of communication for their own benefit. As forgivable as this is from a merely profit-based perspective, it can very easily open the floodgates to a slew of more poorly conceived Spanglish ads. Recent history is full of insultingly horrid trendy campaigns, from the fluffy pop jingles of the ’60s to utterly inspired raps in the ’80s (and early ’90s). Imagine our radio stations funded by poorly acted, flimsily written, and unwarranted copycats.

Television has already seen such travesties, as currently evident in the Massachusetts Department of Public Health’s “You Don't Have to Do It!” campaign. Besides the questionable value of the ad’s state-sponsored sexual abstinence message, there is a slew of egregious faults to the ad. It is comically performed, depicts adolescents as ignorant fools, is oddly shot, and either displays great racial insensitivity or purposefully plays off of stereotypes. Should you simply not believe after all this ranting, take a look here: <http://mit.edu/chads/www/psa.mov>

Of course, there are some good commercials out there, despite their propagandizing purpose. Even the aforementioned ads have entertaining cousins, such as Marlon Wayan’s CALLATT craziness, M&Ms’ emphasis on “the green ones,” and the classic Children’s Aid Society theme. Nor do we even have to deal with any one spot for a significant period of time. Ultimately, we must ask ourselves if ignoring a service based on its promotion alone is any better than being bedazzled by its flashy claims. Both choices may inspire corporations to devote more time to the push than the product, dooming us to a greater pablum than we see even now.