Mad World: Too Cool for School

Kelsey Wallace
View profile »

Kelsey Wallace is an editor in Portland, Oregon. Follow her on Twitter if you like TV and pictures of dogs.

OK, we are all pretty up on the concept of advertising at this point. Not to say that ads don’t have an effect on us (they do), but when it comes to the reasoning behind most ad campaigns, we savvy media consumers are hip to what’s going on. They’re trying to sell us something. We get it. So what do we do with ads that let us “in” on the joke?

Take this Kotex U ad, for example. The woman featured in the ad makes fun of typical tampon advertising, and by doing so she’s saying, “We know you’re too smart for this stuff, so we won’t insult you by employing the usual tactics here.” The catch is, this is still an advertisement. The point of the ad is to gain our respect so that we’ll spend money on Kotex tampons instead of those other tampons that insult us by using blue liquid to represent period blood. We know this, because the Kotex ad also uses blue liquid to represent period blood, but in an ironic way. Get it?

I am throwing this concept, which I am calling self-aware advertising, out here on the Mad World discussion blog because I kind of don’t know what to do with it. Should we be glad that organizations who want to sell us stuff are attempting to be funny and “get it”, or should we be extra pissed off because we’re getting double-hoodwinked? Because the truth here, IMHO, is that companies that use these too-cool-for-school ads are not, as they’d like us to think, pushing any sort of envelope or throwing off the shackles of conventional advertising norms. In fact, they are simply reinforcing them by using tried and true persuasive tactics disguised as edginess. If you get it, then you are cool enough to spend money on the product. Advertising Mission: Accomplished.

Another example (or actually, tons of examples, because this happens just about every other episode of this show) of this inside joke-y tactic can be seen on 30 Rock. Behold:

Get it? It’s like, Tina Fey knows we’re too smart to fall for simple product placements, so she writes them into the script and lets us in on the joke, making the butt of the joke that evil corporate villain Verizon Wireless who is forcing these creative types to shill cell phones. But who’s really the butt of the joke here? Two of the three players in this scenario (Verizon, 30 Rock, and us) are laughing all the way to the bank. And guess what? We’re not a part of that bank-visiting, gut-busting group. The writers at 30 Rock know that by using this self-aware technique they can get paid by Verizon and still appear to be subversive. By doing that, they’re endearing both themselves (for being so subversive) and Verizon (for being a part of the subversive joke) to us as consumers. So the “subversive” ad results in two gigantic corporations making money by selling a lifestyle concept (the shrewd consumer who “gets it”) to a mass audience. How not at all groundbreaking!

The first time I remember seeing this tactic used (and I’d love to hear your examples because I’m just going on memory here) was in this Sprite campaign:

Here, Sprite uses a celebrity spokesperson (Grant Hill) to make fun of the concept of celebrity spokespeople. Again, while masquerading as a refreshingly honest commercial that rejects conventional industry tropes, this ad reinforces the value of a celebrity spokesperson by acting too cool for it while actually just partaking in it (notice how Sprite is the “official drink of the NBA”). The joke is for us, but it is also on us. It’s like that friend you have that dresses like a homeless person but lives in a $3,000/month loft in Williamsburg – the authenticity just isn’t there.

Still, our foreseeable media future contains a shitload of advertising (not all media outlets are independent like your pal Bitch Media! Booyah!) and so instead of rejecting all advertising messages we are charged with the task of thinking critically about them. Is this style of self-aware advertising better or worse than ads that don’t try (or pretend to try) to let consumers behind the scenes? Oh, and be sure to add your own examples of self-aware advertising in the comments section!

OH_Logo.jpg This project was made possible in part by a grant from Oregon Humanities (OH), a statewide nonprofit organization and an independent affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities, which funds OH’s grant program. Any views, findings, and conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of Oregon Humanities or the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Get Bitch Media's top 9 reads of the week delivered to your inbox every Saturday morning! Sign up for the Weekly Reader:

12 Comments Have Been Posted

Layers of irony and frustration

I too am confounded by advertising attempts at irony and self-reflexivity ("look we know we're trying to sell you something and are being funny with this awareness"). Advertising's role in a capitalist society is inevitable and attempts at complete and utter avoidance are impossible. Ads that are self-aware and ironic are probably the most tolerable in my book. As a consumer I like to think of myself as not susceptible to advertising and one who makes conscious purchasing decisions based on rationale evidence and conclusions. However, as you pointed out, this isn't always the case, and those attempts at being clever and aware of the tools for selling a product likely have a greater impact on me as a consumer. I see these ads and think "well at least they aren't trying to sneak something past me or appeal to some baser instinct," and am probably influenced into making a purchasing decision with this recollection in mind.
I think these types of ads are an attempt at cajoling the "I know I'm being sold a product right now" crowd and I would argue they are effective. Advertisers and marketers are increasingly aware of the diversity of markets (people) receiving these messages and are undoubtedly crafting and catering their messages to these individual markets. These self-aware and ironic ads are examples of ad messages crafted for a more media literate and critical consumer market. Ultimately they are still a market being sold a product, which is frustrating but inevitable in the consumer capitalist society we live in.

They know their audience

The way I see it, advertisers have only changed with their audience.

These self-aware ads come off as jaded and too cool for school because they are speaking the same language as their target audience. The tactic of adopting whatever voice the buyer is speaking in hasn't changed. So these snarky ads are just proof that some companies have tapped in to one more way to reach their audience.

Corporations are always going to try and sell us stuff and they are never going to be our cool, with it friends for friendship sake. So I'd much prefer a corporation that proves it understands me through humorous self-parody, eco-friendly policy and maybe some charity donations than one that continues to hawk its wares without adopting any self-awareness, even if it's only done to pander.

ugh...that just makes me

ugh...that just makes me wonder what insidious method they'll come up with for the meta-meta crowd.

I guess I see your point that it's good companies are being self-aware, but it still bugs me overall. With the 30 Rock thing it's frustrating because you DON'T know if it's just a joke or if they were paid to do that, and also you are just trying to watch a funny show in between the constant commercials (web or tv).

pssst... They were paid.

pssst... They were paid.

Can you go over that part

Can you go over that part about why don't we want to reject all advertising messages again?

The thing about knowing, self-referential messages is that they reveal the "truth" of advertising: that it's not about relaying information or appealing to reason. It's not ideological; it's affective. It works not on your logic but on your desire to identify with something bigger than yourself. Ads don't try to get you to buy products; they try to create worlds that you can find your place in. This is why I don't necessarily believe the claim that, in your example, Verizon is laughing all the way to the bank. Does advertising make money for companies? Maybe, though I'm not sure how you would measure that. I'd say it's just as possible it loses money for companies, if you measure it strictly as outlay of ad money vs. definable increase in consumer demand because of that outlay.

But still advertisers advertise, even if there is no real reason to believe it's money well spent. Because what they want is an identification with the commodity-producing system, not necessarily, or just, with their specific product. Which is why hipsters that "get" advertising, that "see through" its manifest claims, are more even more duped than those who don't: because the advertisement is working on them on a nonconscious level, their conscious rejection of it only means a more immediate identification with the system that produces it.

Ad rejection

Thanks for your comments, Eric! As far as the rejection of advertising messages goes, it's not so much that we don't want to reject all advertising messages, it's that (unless we are planning on living off the grid for the foreseeable future) we are confronted with so many advertising messages that thinking critically about them is more useful than just rejecting them outright. Also, I am of the belief that advertising is so pervasive that we are kidding ourselves if even the most critical among us think we are above being affected by it.

I think you're absolutely correct that advertisers are selling an ideology and a way for consumers to identify themselves. However, I would argue that this is about a profit-driven bottom line, and that if companies like Verizon Wireless didn't advertise they would lose money. The point of advertising is to sell an idea and a lifestyle in order to make money, not just for the consumers' sake.

Agreed. And, although I

Agreed. And, although I don't think anyone is suggesting it, I think we need to be warying of the false dichtomy between Critical Aware People Who Reject All Advertisments and Uncritical Unaware Mindless Victims Who Buy Everything The TV Tells Them. We live in this world, and most of us buy stuff from time to time, so as Kelsey's saying, it's important to process how these ads affect us.
It also true, as Eric's saying that companies don't really make a lot of direct money from an ad. More and more we see advertising that is about branding and creating identification with that brand. Ads like this Kotex one seem to indicate that companies are better and better at understanding who we are and inserting themselves into that in ways that seem to make their products integral to our group or individual identities. That's pretty insidious. We used to think it was a problem that ads portrayed women in negative ways, and that was our framework - ads portray women negatively, they make women into objects and it was a problem because it hurts young girls' self esteem. I'm not sure that's the problem in this ad. This lady is kind of cool and in charge...but she's still defined by the tampons she buys. Do these ads fit into that old framework? Do we need a new framework?

now I think I know

This really, really reminds me of the bit in Wayne's World where they blatantly use product placement in their show after it gets picked up by the television network. I'd always wondered if the makers of Wayne's World got paid to write that gag into their script. I think I know the answer, and it's sort of sad. Somehow, it's even worse than being shameless about product placement (i.e. the music video for "Telephone"), because at least that's completely honest.

You get what you pay for

"30 Rock" airs on NBC (and is more than anything else an advertisement for NBC) which means it is available to the public without a subscription. You don't need to have cable to watch it, you just need the proper viewing equipment. The only reason "30 Rock" and many other television shows (both on and off cable) exist is because they have sponsors, sponsors who pay heaps of money to advertise on the program. For many this is elementary information but Wallace (ironically) seems confused about how advertising works (despite her assertion to the contrary). This posts seems to suggest a dismanteling of the entire public broadcast system/advertising system. "30 Rock" would become mighty expensive to their fans should this ever come to pass. While the executives are laughing all the way to the bank, we're laughing in the comfort of our living rooms and being entertained. I wouldn't exactly call this exploitation. No one is being strapped down and forced to watch prime time sitcoms and no one is being forced to buy Verizon cell phones (yet).

The self-reflexive tactic is just another stradegy being used to sell tampons or cell phones (or chips or beer etc) but I don't think it's worth getting upset about. The content of the ads might deserve unpacking, but why waste energy worrying about whether or not we should be angry about television's use of self-reflexive gimmicks? These ads reflect where we are as a culture (because executives spend so much time studying their target demographic, as another poster wrote) and so they deserve explication but... should we be mad about what kind of literary devices are being used on television?

If you don't want to see product placements or ANY advertising for that matter, there is a simple solution. Read a book.

Alyson, Thank you for your


Thank you for your comments. However, I do not understand where you got the idea that I am "confused about how advertising works" from this post. At no point do I suggest a "dismantleing [sic] of the entire public broadcast system," nor am I under the impression that television shows are magically free to produce. My purpose in this post was to question the effectiveness and the ethics of self-aware advertising, including product placements.

Perhaps I wasn't clear enough in the post when I wrote, "our foreseeable media future contains a shitload of advertising and so instead of rejecting all advertising messages we are charged with the task of thinking critically about them." Of course television programs have sponsors, and of course we expect them to advertise products to us. The ways in which they choose to do this are, in my opinion, worth thinking about.

Forgive me.

Ms. Wallace,

Perhaps I was confused because I fail to see the dilemma. You wrote:

"Should we be glad that organizations who want to sell us stuff are attempting to be funny and 'get it', or should we be extra pissed off because we're getting double-hoodwinked?"

What exactly could be considered unethical about "self-aware advertising" (I assure you, the ad has no "awareness" of itself). Is it just because it's advertising? I get the impression you think advertising is inherently wrong. Why should we be "extra pissed off" by the self-reflexive tactic? No one is "hoodwinking" me. When I turn on the television I know what I'm in for. I save my energy for thinking critically about the messages---just as you have charged us. That's not what you did. I don't even think there is an argument to be found in your OP.

"The ways in which they choose to do this are, in my opinion, worth thinking about." No kidding. Perhaps my irritation stems from the simple fact that when I read a periodical (and for the sake of this conversation let's count blogs as periodicals, extemporaneous as they may be...) I expect the journalist to have already thought about it, researched available data on the subject, and then report on their findings. I understand there is a little more leniency in the blogosphere, and certainly I appreciate a well-crafted opinion piece. You've been charged with a privilaged position. I hope you are not underestimating the intelligence of your readers.

If you really think "self-aware advertising" as a concept is so important, how about giving us YOUR critical analysis as to whether or not you think it is unethical and why. I think you're up to the challenge. Currently, there is more criticism in the comments of this blog than in the original post.

Alyson, Thanks for


Thanks for responding. While it's great that you have a working knowledge of advertising (hence knowing what you're in for when you turn on the TV) not everyone is in that position. See, for example, the comments above by readers who were unclear as to whether or not television shows make money through product placements. I think it's useful to examine the ethics behind advertisements that try to let the consumer in on the joke, just as I think it's useful to examine the ethics behind all advertising. It's fine if you don't think so – we can agree to disagree on the subject.

As far as the analysis goes, the purpose of the Mad World blog series is to prompt discussion, therefore I write these Mad World posts as jumping-off points for others to share their opinions, and I try not to come down too hard on one side or another. That being said, I did give my opinion here as to why I think self-aware advertising should be analyzed: <i>"Because the truth here, IMHO, is that companies that use these too-cool-for-school ads are not, as they'd like us to think, pushing any sort of envelope or throwing off the shackles of conventional advertising norms. In fact, they are simply reinforcing them by using tried and true persuasive tactics disguised as edginess. If you get it, then you are cool enough to spend money on the product. Advertising Mission: Accomplished."</i>

Still, the fact that you find "more criticism in the comments of this blog than in the original post" here is what we're going for with this series, so thanks for participating and helping to keep things lively!

Add new comment