The Strange Appeal of the Rice Krispies Treats Ads

Several weeks ago, the Wall Street Journal noted a small trend in what it called “ouch ads”–that is, various bits of print and broadcast advertising featuring imagery that makes you wince. A guy with a disk drive slot in the top of his bald head. Someone with their eyes pried open. That sort of thing. Another example: an ad for Rice Krispies Treats that’s set on a subway and involves the loss of a limb. (You can see the ad here, via the Web site, which requires the use of QuickTime.) And there’s another Rice Krispies Treats ad that’s perhaps even weirder. (See it here.) Actually I don’t think either of these ads is wince-worthy, but they’re both pretty fascinating.

The ads: In the first spot, a man is standing in the middle of a grubby subway car, gripping a strap. “Do you hate going to work?” asks a voice-over in an accent that sounds vaguely European. The rider loses his balance and takes a tumble, landing flat on his back. Fellow passengers sit by with Bergman-esque detachment. “You can make the commute more pleasurable with Rice Krispies Treats squares,” goes the voice-over. So the man mashes a sticky Rice Krispies Treat into his hand, and grips the strap with that. Again the train lurches, and our strap-hanger loses his footing. The good news is the Rice Krispies Treat holds. The bad news is the guy’s arm doesn’t, and it snap-crackle-pops off his body at the shoulder, leaving him to tumble once again. The announcer chimes in, “Rice Krispies Treats: Great for grip. Best when eaten.” The commuter bites into a treat, held by his new prosthetic claw. Hungry?

The second spot opens with a shot of a heavy, pale, bearded man, floating in an above-ground pool. A cheesy, 1970s-ish tune plays in the background. “If you’re lonely,” says the same droll announcer from the subway ad, “and don’t have any friends to go swimming with, consider making one with Rice Krispies Treats squares.” The fat man is now floating in his little pool–with a woman made of Rice Krispies Treats. She’s wearing a bikini, and is instantly reminiscent of a life-size inflatable doll, like the one Dennis Hopper’s character lived within River’s Edge. Soon he’s putting suntan lotion on her, then squirming around under her outstretched hand, as though she were slathering it on him. In the background music, the word “Kelly” is sung repeatedly, and I think we are to surmise that this is the Krispie-doll’s name. “But remember,” the announcer says, as the fat guy comes strutting out of the house in sunglasses and a robe, holding two drinks in coconut shells–“never to leave your friend alone by the pool.” A dog is standing there with the Kelly’s head in his mouth. The fat guy is shown from above, cradling his decapitated friend in his arms, and crying “Keelllly!!” to the heavens. “Rice Krispies Treats,” the announcer says brightly, as the image switches to the fat guy’s mouth, chewing a treat. “Great for making friends. Best when eaten.”

What they’re trying to say: Shock tactics are nothing new in advertising, of course. Someone from the agency that did the commuter ad explained to the Journal that the goal is to get the attention of teen-agers. If that’s the case, then the ads seem to be trying to associate Rice Krispies Treats with a certain sensibility–hip and knowing, but not above low humor. So the treat is being sold less as a treat than as a kind of signifier: If you “get” these ads, then perhaps Rice Krispies Treats are an appropriate addition to your “lifestyle.”

What could they possibly mean? On the other hand, maybe it’s not a signifier at all. Certainly there’s a total disconnect between the people in the ads and the product–you don’t want to be the fat guy in the pool with the Krispies doll. So maybe the idea is just to get a kid’s attention in any way possible, and then slip in a brand name and hope it sticks. In that case it doesn’t really matter what the ads are about, as long as they stand out. Actual product attributes are explored only in the least conventional manner possible, which is maybe for the best, since my vague recollection of Rice Krispies Treats is that they tasted like something that might have been put to better use as a packing material. Anyway, the ads certainly hold the attention. The commuter spot is very funny; the other one is certainly memorable, kind of in the way that Blue Velvet is memorable.

The grade: Let’s say B+. That’s probably overly generous, since I’m kind of skeptical that these ads will move Krispies units. I’m not sure if these spots will stand out for teen-agers or not, but I think they’re great.