Ed Driscoll

Hey, Who’s Up for Another Nightmarish Viral Video Ad?


OK, we’ll get to the freaky-deaky Ragu ad above in a moment, but first, some background.

Back in the old days, the danger of advertising was that a company would pay a fortune for an ad campaign in which viewers would enjoy the commercials for their entertainment value, but they wouldn’t necessarily transfer into increased product sales. In the late 1950s, Piels Beer ran a series of ads with the beloved comedy team of Bob and Ray playing Bert and Harry Piel. Everybody loved the ads, nobody bought the beer, perhaps because, as veteran ad man Jerry Della Femina wrote in 1970 in his classic advertising industry exposé, From Those Wonderful Folks Who Gave You Pearl Harbor, the product may have been terrible:


Beer advertising can be very tricky. Young & Rubicam turned out some terrific ads on Bert and Harry Piel, the Piel Brothers. Everybody liked Bert and Harry, all the intellectuals loved them. Good old Bert and Harry: they laughed at the product, they had fun. The big mistake with that campaign was that it got people to taste Piel’s Beer. A guy would take one sip of it and say, ‘Screw Bert and Harry, like they were a lot of fun and I like to look at them on the late news but they’re not going to make me drink this stuff.’ It’s a case of ‘You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink,’ especially if he’s tried the stream once and it tastes terrible. And that was it. Bert and Harry never came back.

(My dad loved Bob and Ray, loved the ads, he told me about them, he had a Bert and Harry swizzle stick dispenser on top of the bar in our finished basement growing up – and he only drank Lowenbrau and later Heineken.)

Today advertisers have flipped that notion on its head: They’re apparently counting on everybody hating the ad, but loving the product. On Friday night, we witnessed a young woman French kissing a Walrus to hawk Skittles candy, and a primitive hominid made of ice cream devouring himself. Over the weekend, the above Ragu clip ran during the Olympics, causing Laura W. at the Ace of Spades blog to recoil in horror, “WTF?”


Really not sure how the content of this ad promotes Ragu sauce. I can see the angle of pasta as a comfort food, but…couldn’t they find a more wholesome scenario for a kid…I mean…

…no, just NO. Jesus.

No, really, what the f***???

And at Hot Air, Allahpundit alternates between calling Ragu’s new commercial, “The greatest ad ever?” and dubbing it “a new entry in the surprising recent ad trend involving people being scarred for life.”

Back in the 1970s, a perennially best-selling paperback was Subliminal Seduction by Wilson Bryan Key, first published in 1973, but in print for years later. (My copy was published in 1981. )  The cover of the book featured a beautifully lit glass of gin or vodka on the rocks with the headline, “ARE YOU BEING SEXUALLY AROUSED BY THIS PICTURE?” (Well, no, but still, I’ll buy your paperback anyway. It’s only $1.99.)

Key would feature, say, a J&B Scotch ad that was all rich and pleasurable looking on the surface, and then zoom into the ice cubes the airbrush artist had painted in (this was decades before Photoshop, remember), since real ice wouldn’t last long under hot photo lights. There, he would find all sorts of tiny nightmarish subliminal monsters and gargoyles that had been painted in to the advertisement.


This may have simply been the airbrush artist seeing what he could slide by the ad agency that hired him, rather than any sort of grand conspiracy, as the book’s title implies. But in any case, today’s viral video ads are putting their horrific imagery right up front, the better to make bloggers looking for something new to write about to embed their clips. (Hey, wait a second….) But apparently, in today’s flat-lined Obama-conomy, businesses are fine with having their products associated with what James Lileks would call “Bona-fide full-strength Nightmare Fuel, highest octane rating possible,” as long as it moves the product.

In a way, it’s the old Saturday Night Live Smuckers parody brought into the 21st century. Back in the 1970s, Smuckers Jam, complete with their slogan read by folksy-sounding announcer Mason Adams, had a TV ad that was ubiquitous: “With a name like Smuckers, it has to be good.” In the first season of SNL, then-show writer Michael O’Donoghue simply took that concept to its absurdist conclusion:

Jane Curtin: . . . And so, with a name like Fluckers, it’s got to be good

Chevy Chase: Hey, hold on a second, I have a jam here called Nose Hair. Now with a name like Nose Hair, you can imagine how good it must be. MMM MMM!!

Dan Aykroyd: Hold it a minute folks, but are you familiar with a jam called Death Camp? That’s Death Camp! Just look for the barbed wire on the label. With a name like Death Camp it must be so good it’s incredible! Just amazingly good jam!

John Belushi: Wait a minute . . . Dog Vomit, Monkey Pus. We offer you a choice of two of the most repulsive brand names of jams you’ve ever heard of. With names like these, this stuff has got to be terrific. We’re talking fabulous jam here!

Chevy Chase: Save your breath fella! Here’s a new jam we’ve just put out. It’s called Painful Rectal Itch. You’d have to go a long way to find a worse name for a jam. And good? MMM WAH! With a name like Painful Rectal Itch you gotta bet that it’s great . . .

Dan Aykroyd: Mangled Baby Ducks. That’s right, Mangled Baby Ducks! Picture a jam so good that you’d dare to call it Mangled Baby Ducks! Great Jam! It’s beautiful jam!

John Belushi: Wait a minute, wait a minute, this is it – 10,000 Nuns and Orphans.

Jane Curtin: 10,000 Nuns and Orphans? What’s so bad about that?

John Belushi: They were all eaten by rats! Oh, it’s so good! MMM!

Garrett Morris: Hold it, hold it everyone, your attention please, I have here a jam called, Oh God, [mumbles] Ick! Yecch!

Dan Aykroyd: It’s so good it’s sick making!

Chevy Chase: Oh, that’s gotta be great jam!

Jane Curtin: So if it’s great jam you’re after, try this one, the brand so disgusting you can’t say it on television. Ask for it by name!


And now we have TV ads with concepts so disgusting we’re writing about them. But paradoxically, the bad tastes they leave in our mouths don’t seem to be transferring to the actual candy, ice cream, and now spaghetti sauce they’re shilling for.

At least, that’s the plan by today’s would-be Don Drapers.

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