Ads we hate.

Ads we hate.

Ads we hate.

Advertising deconstructed.
Aug. 6 2007 7:15 AM

Ads We Hate

Readers nominate the worst of the worst.

Over the past few weeks, my girlfriend has been looking into international cell phone plans. At the Verizon Wireless Web site, she had an online chat with a sales representative. I feel compelled to share this verbatim transcript:

A Verizon Wireless online pre-sales specialist has joined the chat. You are now chatting with chelsea.
chelsea: Hello. Thank you for visiting our chat service. May I help you with your order today?
You: I am interested in the international BlackBerry and am looking for detailed information for rates on data and voice when making calls from different countries in Asia.
chelsea: Please hold on while I check that information.
chelsea: Unfortunately you will not be able to use the phone in Asia.
chelsea: I do apologize.
You: Hmm. OK. Actually [I] am nearly certain the international BlackBerry can be used everywhere but Japan.
chelsea: I'm sorry for the delay. I'll be right with you.
chelsea: I will be right with you.
chelsea: I just tried to look for Asia in the countries list, and it was unavailable.
You: Yeah. Asia is more of a continent than a country (like Europe—not a country, France—a country). I'll stop by a store I guess and try to figure it out.
chelsea: Ok.
chelsea: Thank you for visiting Verizon Wireless, I look forward to speaking with you again. Have a great day!
Your chat session has been ended by your Verizon Wireless online agent.

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.

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Chelsea seemed pretty eager to get out of there at the end. Unfailingly polite, though.

Relevance? OK, the above exchange isn't really about advertising. But customer service is one of those "brand touchpoints" the marketing executives are always prattling on about. And this experience made my girlfriend hate Verizon with great fury. Which is the theme of today's column: furious hating.

Yes, it's time for another edition of the Ad Report Card Ads We Hate mailbag. This is your opportunity to vent about recent commercials that have annoyed, disturbed, and/or disgusted you. So, without further ado, the floor is now open for rage-fueled rants.

Filet-O-Fish ad. Click image to expand.

Just saw this Filet-O-Fish ad from McDonald's. It's hideous. Were these people on drugs when this campaign was dreamed up?—K.F.

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I can't speak to whether (or which) drugs were consumed by the creators of this ad, which features two Filet-O-Fish sandwiches arguing over nuanced pronunciation differences. I can, however, inform you that the ad comes from Aaron Ruell, who played Kip in the movie Napoleon Dynamite. Ruell was also behind a 2006 Powerade ad that featured drag-racing Amish dudes.

The Filet-O-Fish spot, like the Powerade one, employs a static camera and a lot of deadpan absurdism. I will admit I occasionally grinned the first time I saw it. But in terms of selling the product? Filet-O-Failure. One should not film fast-food items in their sad cardboard boxes, exposed to the audience's close inspection in a series of long, tight close-ups. Those greasy fish-bricks look decidedly unappetizing.

Ask.com ad. Click image to expand.

In the new TV ads for the search engine Ask.com, a man (along with a chorus of women) sings that "he found just what he was looking for." What he was looking for turns out to be "chicks with swords." While it's vaguely disturbing that Ask.com is celebrating in song that this guy successfully found masturbatory material online, I am truly creeped out by his smile a few seconds into the song. It looks like his search on Ask.com would actually be "how to cook and eat chicks with swords."—M.M.  

Wow, he does look terrifyingly excited. I'm not sure this ad was the best move for a mainstream search engine that hopes to compete with Google. 1) It implies that the typical Ask.com user is a freaky fetish-porn perv. 2) The pitch is that Ask.com is the best way to locate hard-to-find things on the Web. But—correct me if I'm wrong—isn't porn the one thing that's not at all difficult to find on the Web?

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Have you seen that Clearasil ad with the horrible sound dubbing? It's two kids (brothers) in the bathroom, and their mouths don't even remotely match the dialogue. Is it like a recycled ad from another country?
—A.B.

I know exactly the ad you're talking about. I couldn't find a clip of it online. However—and I think this partially answers your question—I did find this version of the ad in which everything's the same, except the brothers have British accents. (And, again, totally unsynched lip movements.) Looks like Clearasil's trying to cut a few corners. But if the dialogue is dubbed in both the American and British spots, I'm left to wonder what was coming out of these zit-afflicted kids' mouths in the original take. Anyway, isn't the language of acne universal? How do you say "pulsating whitehead volcano-top" in Esperanto?

Vagisil ad. Click image to expand.

I'm writing in reference to the Vagisil ad where they talk about "feminine itch and odor" and show images of a blowfish, a lobster, and a skunk. I find this to be THE MOST OFFENSIVE AD IN THE ENTIRE WORLD EVER. I really thought that the Vagina Monologues sort of got women over the whole notion that their ladyparts are dirty and stank. I am appalled that this ad remains on TV. (I tend to see it on the Lifetime Network—so sue me, I love The Nanny!) I'm in a good frame of mind to e-mail Vagisil.
—B.S.

This reader actually did e-mail Vagisil a few minutes later, and then forwarded me the company's response, which was this: "Thank you for your e-mail regarding our television commercial for Vagisil. We certainly appreciate the time you have taken to express your comments. We're sorry that you found the commercial offensive. We would like to inform you that we have pulled the commercial."

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Furious hate gets results! I'm told Vagisil also pulled the follow-up ad, in which a three-days-dead wildebeest is smeared with spoilt milk and then carefully arranged atop a pile of warm, damp garbage.

Altoids ad. Click image to expand.

Have you seen the advertisement for the new chocolate-flavored Altoids that features an explosion—presumably, a symbolic explosion of flavor—in the shape of a mushroom cloud? Of course I'm biased here, having been born and raised in Japan, but I find this advertisement extremely offensive and callous to the millions affected by the bombs dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima in WWII, which I perceive as something akin to genocide, two times over. What do you think? Am I wrong in thinking these ads should be withdrawn?—K.O. You don't have to look very far to find ads exploiting various tragedies. Last year's Chevy "This Is Our Country" spot was a twofer, with both 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina references. (By the way, I despised that ad.)

I understand how this Altoids spot could be offensive to some, but personally I don't have a huge problem with it. There's no specificity to the reference. I've actually visited Hiroshima and the Peace Memorial Museum, and I'm a little bit sensitized to the horrors that occurred there. But I've also seen lots of footage of random test detonations (like the ones at the end of Dr. Strangelove), so I don't necessarily connect an image of a mushroom cloud directly to the devastation that afflicted Japan.

Now, if the ad had shown people's eyeballs melting out, and the skin sloughing off their arms as they shrieked in ecstasy at the chocolate-y Altoids flavor ... that might have been offensive.

Domino's ad. Click image to expand.
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Domino's Oreo Dessert Pizza? Please get this ad off television immediately!! I am so disturbed by the eerie Oreo mustache/beard, and the creepy nodding of the father, and the skeezy family moment.—G.S.

The previous Ads We Hate mailbag featured multiple bewildered readers begging me to explain Fudgems, the Domino's brownie snack that—in a commercial, at least—hugged people and covered them in brown guck. Now Domino's has assaulted us with another bizarre dessert ad. What gives?

Here I should admit that a short while back, in a moment of weakness (it's a moment of weakness every time I order from Domino's, but this night I was feeling especially weak), I ordered and consumed one of these Oreo pizza desserts. And just as the ad suggests, crumbly bits of Oreo stuck to my face. That viscous lard "cream" cemented tiny chocolate crumbs to my chin and the sides of my mouth. Wiping with a napkin was counterproductive—it just smeared the lard and rubbed it deep into my pores.

Anyway, this whole event was traumatic, and made me briefly reassess my worth as a human. As a result, I'm taking a sabbatical from Ad Report Card. (That's not actually why, but it's a convenient explanation, and I'm going to run with it.) Slate will find someone or someones to ably fill my shoes while I'm gone.

During my time away, 1) I will miss you, and 2) I will be pondering all the wrong turns I've taken in life—the series of bad choices that ultimately resulted in an Oreo pizza adhering to my face. I hope you will also use our time apart to focus inward, and make important changes.

We'll meet again on these pages, down the road a bit—when we'll all be better people, but most ads will still suck. Until then, adieu.