Bayer Verks Vunders

[Update, 6/6/00: The Bayer ad discussed in this item is now available for viewing on by clicking here.]

A Slate colleague was watching television recently when an advertisement came on for a home bug spray. The ad was in the sadistic tradition of insecticide commercials in which the bugs are turned into humanoid cartoon characters and shown screaming with horror as they die. These ads are supposed to be amusing. And Chatterbox–no sourpuss–agrees they often are. (To view a classic commercial for Raid Mouse Killer, click here.) Still, they’re pretty weird.

The ads, of course, borrow the conventions of non-ad cartoons, in which Wile E. Coyote or Elmer Fudd gets an anvil dropped on his head or runs off the edge of a cliff and goes splat in the ravine. But they do not adopt the most important convention, which is that the characters don’t die. In a non-ad cartoon they emerge unharmed to get blown up by dynamite yet again. This makes the anthropomorphic bug-killer ads even weirder, since genuine fatality is the key point they’re trying to make.

But the latest example of the genre takes weirdness into whole new realms. As described by Chatterbox’s colleague, who is fairly sure he’s got it right, a bug who resembles Danny DeVito, or perhaps the Newman character on Seinfeld, is heading for the kitchen and gleefully announces that it’s snack time. However, he discovers that the kitchen owner uses this particular brand of insecticide. Go back! Newman screeches to his swarming comrades. But it’s too late. They perish.

Here’s what’s weird. The ad is for a new product called Bayer Advanced Home, which (according to a March 28 Bayer press release) is “the first consumer product since Aspirin to prominently display the Bayer name and logo as part of its branding.” Bayer is one of the most powerful brands in the world. It entices millions of people to pay several times as much for a pill stamped “Bayer” as for a virtually identical pill for sale on the very same shelf. As SlateMoneybox” columnist Rob Walker points out, it’s not immediately obvious why it’s a good idea to associate those pills (click here to see an old “Bayer works wonders” ad) with a highly efficient poison.

If you know a little company history, however, the new Bayer Advanced Home ad seems spectacularly bizarre. Bayer AG is a German-based corporation whose Web site dates the company’s founding to 1863, when Friedrich Bayer and Johann Friedrich Weskott “opened a modest dyeworks” in Wuppertal-Barmen. The modern company’s founding, however, dates to the breakup after World War II of I.G. Farben, a large chemical conglomerate. I.G. Farben was a key player in the Holocaust. It manufactured the Zyklon B used to gas Jews in the death chambers; it designed ovens used to incinerate the corpses; and it used as slave laborers those Jews at Auschwitz who were still alive. Farben’s wartime Bayer unit itself may have played a role in Dr. Josef Mengele’s famous human experiments; a June 11, 1999 report on ABC’s 20/20revealed that Bayer’s then-sales director, Wilhelm Mann, wrote in a letter, “I have enclosed the first check. Dr. Mengele’s experiments should, as we both agreed, be pursued. Heil Hitler!” Bayer told 20/20 that there was no evidence that Mann, who was acquitted of war-crimes charges at Nuremberg, ever sent the money. A Bayer spokesperson also said, “Bayer did not exist as a legal entity between 1925 and 1951.” Last October, B’nai B’rith ran a lurid full-page ad about all this in the New York Times under the headline, “Bayer’s Biggest Headache: Human Experiments and Slave Labor.” Two months later, Bayer and several other large German companies dating to that era agreed to pay $5.2 billion to compensate concentration-camp survivors.

Bayer, though dunderheaded enough to trumpet its valuable brand name in a TV commercial that will remind people of this history, was, sadly, just smart enough to deny Chatterbox’s request to view the ad in question (and to instruct its ad firm to do the same). Chatterbox’s description therefore must rely on his Slate colleague’s memory. The ad isn’t yet posted on the fairly comprehensive Web site, nor has it been written up in Advertising Age or Adweek. If the spot becomes available at one of these sites, Chatterbox will link to it.