Advertising for Dummies

One of the more remarked-upon trends in modern (actually, postmodern, I guess) advertising is the reliance upon anti-ads, those commercials that acknowledge the basic insincerity of the adman’s project and which presumably please viewers by nudge-nudge, wink-winking them in a way that recognizes how phenomenally aware we are of advertising’s attempts to ensnare us. Sprite’s “Thirst Is Everything” campaign, with its faux pop songs touting the drink’s magical powers, is the most obvious example, and some days it feels as if we’re all living in the world The Monkees made.

The past few months, though, have given us an entirely new–and relatively unremarked-upon–advertising trend, which might be called the “consumers are dumb as a post” phenomenon. The campaign for AT&T’s “Single One Rate” plan thus features Paul Reiser going around talking to people about how now every long-distance call they make with AT&T will cost just 7 cents a minute, while those he talks to react with a mix of befuddlement and incredulity, peppering him with questions that show that they just don’t get what 7-cents-a-minute really means.

Similarly, Burger King’s new radio campaign for its Cini-Minis centers on an announcer trying to explain that Cini-Minis cost just 99 cents to a group of people who ask questions like, “If I had 17 cents, could I get a Cini-Mini?” And Merrill Lynch’s utterly bizarre television ads for its new pricing structure/Internet strategy all feature Merrill customers who just can’t quite understand what this whole newfangled approach is going to mean, like the guy who tells his broker how much he’ll miss her, even as she assures him that she’ll still be around.

The Merrill campaign is by far the strangest exemplar of the trend, since what the ads–which include one in which confused customers quiz a panel of Merrill execs at a kind of town meeting–actually point out is both how dubious the whole brokerage business was to begin with and how potentially damaging the new pricing structure (which includes much lower commissions) will be to Merrill’s bottom line. But the principle in all these campaigns is the same: The company is offering something incredibly simple and straightforward, but consumers just can’t see it.

I think it makes sense to ask whether people really like being told how obtuse they are, because even if the ads work on some level to inculcate a sense of superiority in the viewer–as in “These idiots don’t know what 7-cents-a-minute-every-day means, but I sure do! Ha, ha, ha!”–on a deeper level we are the people Reiser and those Merrill guys are talking to, and think of how troubling it is to be told that Paul Reiser understands something you don’t. So this aspect of the ads is genuinely perplexing. Usually, aspirational advertising doesn’t include not being stupid as one of the aspirations it’s meant to inspire.

But there is something else going on in these ads, which is that they’re essentially a kind of reaction against data smog. The people in these ads have been confused by complicated pricing plans and service agreements with strange restrictions. They’ve been trained to think that everything will be difficult and tricky. They’re unable to see the purity of “7 cents a minute” even when it’s right in front of them. And in some way the ads are saying that simplicity is disorienting because we’re too comfortable with complexity. It’s like “Morning in America” all over again.

The problem is that this message is so simple that you can only hear it a couple of times before it becomes intolerable. I’m happy to watch ads that remind me of my knowingness, if they’re clever. But there’s no way to do the “It’s so simple it’s baffling” ads cleverly, because the whole point of the ads is that cleverness itself is bad. (This is partly why the Merrill ads, which seem to want to be clever, end up seeming weirdly self-defeating.) And that would seem to mean that this trend will be short-lived. Then again, Touched by an Angel is a Top-10 show. So who knows?