The Rise of the Anti-Ad


In the age of information overload, in the capitalist society of the United States of America, we citizens have become experts at blocking out unwanted messaging and detecting cleverly disguised sales pitches. Like an attractive woman at a bar, we are accustomed to being hit on, both crassly and creatively. Our evolving cynicism is matched only by the marketing world’s ever-growing arsenal of tactics.

We are locked in an arms race that will some day become so intense we will question the motives of every conversation we have or piece of media we consume. Was that chatty guy at the Starbucks™ really a guerilla marketing agent? Was that catchy song on Pandora developed by a mega-corporation to include subliminal messaging? It might seem extreme, until you consider the extent to which product placement has already infiltrated our wold. Brandspotters.com is dedicated to following this phenomenon. One of my favorite programs of the moment, Fringe, is a major offender, with whole scenes shot around the Nissan Leaf and then followed by ads for the Nissan Leaf.  In print media, it’s common for brands to create ads that mimic the editorial content surrounding them. In Wired, for example, ads tend to feature techy infographics, slick graphic design, and photos of technogadgets. I often get a paragraph into such sneaky advertorial before realizing what’s happened. It makes sense to do things this way, but it can also turn off a reader, make them feel they’ve been duped.

As a way around this, some advertisers have taken an entirely different tack, turning their ads inside out. Ads are being developed that at once call attention to their “adness” while simultaneously mocking the very idea of an ad: “Hey, this is an AD!!! Isn’t that ridiculous?! Aren’t ads lame? Isn’t the world crazy? Let’s all laugh…” This is the latest method savvy agencies have adopted to circumvent our bullshit detectors. Not only do we not tune these ads out, we welcome them into our homes, share them with our friends via Facebook, Twitter, and email. We quote them ironically in meetings or at lunch. Here, marketers serve us a tiny nugget of a brand message wrapped in an irresistible candy coating of entertainment.

The video anti-ads in this blog are, to me, much more interesting than the products they sell (body spray, mail-order razors, crap beer…). Their genius is in their irreverence and their focus on entertainment. The companies’ messages are pushed to the background (though still present, in an ironic way), so that we accept the ad as a piece of entertainment worth watching multiple times or sharing, as I am doing here. There is no escape.

So is this newest wave of anti-ads engineered for the social media age better or worse than the other forms that already saturate the world around us? I don’t have an answer, but at least we can all have a good laugh in the meantime.