Recursive Advertising--The Joke's on Us

by Jason Voegele

Copyright © Jason Voegele

Advertisements sometimes refer to their own fictional universe within the framework of their commercials. Much as poets draw on the lore and tradition of all poetry, advertisers in our post-modern society draw on traditions from all aspects of popular culture. This kind of meta-advertisement most often takes the form of a spoof or parody of another advertisement. These spoof advertisements poke fun at other advertisers use of stereotypes, marketing techniques, or just plain silliness. The purpose in using this kind of advertising technique is of course to discredit the methods used by other advertisers to sell their products. These ads can make the consumer feel like they are in on the joke by suggesting that they are far too intelligent and sophisticated to fall for the obvious tricks that other advertisers use.

To this end, such spoof advertising can work very well. Indeed, when the Energizer Bunny comes trotting through a television commercial, it can make the staged advertisement we had been watching seem pretty silly, even if beforehand we had thought it to be a particularly normal commercial. It is a refreshing approach that simultaneously makes us laugh and reminds us to be wary of all the advertising techniques used by advertisers in order to persuade us to buy their product. The advertisers using this type of technique are trying to establish a special relationship with the consumer by aligning themselves with the consumer against the rest of the advertising industry.

These spoof advertisements are asking us to buy a particular product by making fun of other companies' attempts to make us buy their products. By subverting traditional stereotypes and advertising techniques, these ads are not actually adopting a fully clean approach as they are purported to be, but are merely playing on the consumer's desire to be a wise consumer. As much as they'd like to believe they are being entirely honest with consumers, they are really using "manipulation made obvious in the service of manipulation" (Savan 51). The result of this common practice is that the line between parody and sincerity is becoming blurred; rather than discrediting certain advertising techniques, it is reinforcing them.

Often, advertisers parody things that in all actuality have nothing to do with their product. Johnnie Walker, a liquor company, used this technique on a billboard in California that was apparently spoofing phone sex advertisements. There is no real correlation between liquor and phone sex, but the billboard is apparently using phone sex as its target in parody. It suggests to the consumers that they know phone sex is something done only by the dregs of society, and that the consumer is obviously above such things. The idea is, of course, that since Johnnie Walker realizes all this and points it out to the consumer, the consumer will feel some sort of kinship with them, pitted against the obvious manipulation and exploitation of the phone sex industry. But what the billboard does in its spoof of phone sex ads is include a phone number, which drivers seeing the ad can call to talk to the attractive models shown on the billboard. Reportedly, 45,000 Californians called the number within the first month. According to the New York Times report, "In a tape-recorded message, the models assure callers in silken tones: 'I bet we have lots in common, especially if you drink Johnnie Walker.'" (18). What is really more exploitive--phone sex ads which sell you exactly what they say they do or a liquor ad which urges you to call beautiful models who remind you to buy Johnnie Walker liquor? Which is actually the parody?

More recently, Bud Light has begun a campaign in which several men dress up as women, apparently in hopes to receive some of the benefits women receive for being women, such as free beer on ladies' night. One particular commercial has the bearded and hairy-chested men dressed in bikinis and wearing wigs, playing sand volleyball with real women. The role that the men play is that of the typical bimbo often portrayed in other beer advertisements. The ad is obviously trying to parody the sexism and exploitation of women so often seen in beer commercials by using the male bimbo characters to comic effect and trying to establish more realistic female characters with the female volleyball players. But almost all of the shots of those bikini-clad female volleyball players are centered on their heaving and provocatively jouncing chests. The ad's spoof of the bimbo image merely makes a joke of it, and does nothing whatsoever to undermine the image. And by making a joke of it, making the audience laugh at the stereotype, it perpetuates it. It gives the impression that it is alright to make use of the image because everyone is wise to it. It has been made fun of and therefore is no longer a serious issue--we need only laugh about it. The Bud Light advertisement makes fun of this bimbo image, thus taking no responsibility for exploitation of women in beer ads. Consequently, it is justifiable for the ad to exploit the women it portrays, because it's all just a big joke. By extension, this can only lead to the very dangerous potential of laughing off more serious problems, making a mockery of them rather than actually doing something.

As harmless and fun as such spoofing may seem to be, it could feasibly become a dangerous propaganda weapon; in our age of irony, we can shrug off just about any problem resignedly, belittled by the forces at work behind it--especially if we can be made to laugh about it. In the advertising world, parody is used to point out and poke fun at the manipulation and exploitation that occurs in advertising, but uses manipulation and exploitation to do so. The use of such parody is really no more than a euphemism for the object of parody: putting a friendlier face on it without really changing its meaning.

Works Cited