Ad Report Card

Xbox and the Meaning of Life

Although we usually stick with U.S. commercials here at the Ad Report Card, an exception will be made today for a spot that was running recently in the United Kingdom—until it was banned. The ad is for the Xbox gaming console, and you can see it here (using QuickTime), via the Web site of ’Boards magazine. (Thanks to reader Westley Annis for alerting me of this.)

Xbox baby hurtling toward oblivion

The ad: It begins in a delivery room, where a screaming mom is delivering a screaming baby. The baby literally rockets out of her body and through a window, still screaming. The baby is shown hurtling through the stratosphere at a terrific speed. As it zooms across the skies, it slowly transforms into a little boy. Soon he begins screaming again, eyes wide with fear, as he arcs across the skies. He continues to age—into a young man, an adult. (He’s still naked, so his hands find their way to a television-friendly position.) He screams and screams. He loses his hair; wrinkles develop, and his teeth yellow. He’s old. His scream fades to a croaking groan. Finally, he slams into a grave in a leaf-strewn cemetery. The image dissolves to black and the following words appear in sequence: “Life Is Short.” “Play More.” “Xbox.”

The controversy: This rather startling ad did at least part of what it was intended to do, which was get attention. According to the BBC, 136 complaints about it were registered with the United Kingdom’s Independent Television Commission. Twenty of these viewers were bothered because they’d recently lost a loved one; another was a pregnant woman. Most of the rest were simply offended. The spot was promptly pulled. The ITC commented, “The final scene of a body smashing into its grave was unnecessary and had caused considerable distress to many viewers.”

The message: I happen to think this ad is fantastic, but probably not for the reasons that Xbox-maker Microsoft (which also owns Slate) intended. Sure, the spot follows the overworn path toward “edginess,” and sure, like most others that resort to this tactic it ends up crossing over to crass. But I think those British viewers are wrong  (and silly) to be offended because this ad is beyond crass. It’s so crass it’s profound.

Really, have you ever seen a more harrowing summation of human life? Not only is our time on Earth an ephemeral flare, an awful trajectory along which we are blasted, naked and screaming all the while; not only is its climax sudden and meaningless—but there’s nothing you can do about it! Listen up, kids, there’s no escape from the cruel joke of your own mortality, so stop trying and play some video games, all right? Your supposed individuality is absurd; don’t waste your time punching at the darkness; everything that matters is outside of your control. However, there is a product to take your mind off all this. Resistance is pointless. So buy some video games. Because the truth is that you are dying right now. The ad may be the most thundering and concise argument for the futility of existence since Kafka’s “Give It Up.”

Microsoft apparently issued a response to the U.K. ban asserting that the ad makes a “positive statement about life,” a claim that also has a funny-but-chilling Kafka-esque ring to it. At first I thought that whoever said or wrote this must have struggled to keep from laughing, but on reflection maybe it was all he or she could do to keep from bursting into sobs. If this ad is a positive statement about life, then how scary would a negative one be? Oh, don’t answer. Just buy me an Xbox, and we’ll leave it at that. 


More Dell Dude: Several readers compared Steven (subject of last week’s column) to Eddie Haskell; that also comes up in this brief from the Entertainment Weekly Web site, which notes that as of last summer, actor Ben Curtis had received no free product samples from his employer. (Thanks to Ian B. for the link.) Several other readers sent Dell-related notes, as well as suggestions for other ads to review, but because of a software download gone horribly awry, these and almost all the other e-mail correspondence I received early last week (as well as every message I’d ever sent or received prior to that and my entire address book) were wiped out. So if I haven’t responded to your helpful comments or thoughtful queries, that’s probably why.