Watch this commercial. It’s for gum, but that doesn’t matter.
The ad shows three attractive and racially diverse people from dystopian sci-fi central casting entering separate isolation booths, strapping themselves into chairs with hoses that plug into the backs of their heads, and then ascending together into a large open gunmetal grey steel testing chamber. An old white male scientist in a remote booth operates a robotic nozzle that dispenses a tar-like substance that remains suspended in air. As the scientist throws industrial electrical switches on his control panel, the substance morphs first into a flower, then a bird, then an octopus for each of the three test subjects, respectively. The test subjects react with awe and wonder. The scientist watches their reactions on a closed-circuit TV monitor from his booth. We cut to the subjects on the closed-circuit monitor wide-eyed with wonder, and the commercial ends.
There is no gum in the commercial. Every other gum commercial, including all of the other 5 Gum commercials, make at least some symbolic reference to either the product’s flavor or its breath-freshening quality. We can assume that 5 React Gum does not smell like flowers, feel like bird feathers, or have the rubber taste of octopus.
So what in the world are they thinking? Is this really supposed to sell gum?
Yes, because your subconscious is receiving messages that it understand that your waking mind doesn’t. This gum ad actually begins with an old CRT television pulsing to life. Through the flickering raster lines of the CRT we see a low-res image of a the React 5 gum package. The slogan “Experience May Vary” fades in below the package and then at the 4.5-second mark, the ad abruptly cuts to a wide establishing shot of the three test subjects in the grey metal corridor of test center. Then we see the narrative of the test simulation play out. 3.5 seconds before the ad ends, there is another abrupt cut back to a flickering raster-scan image of the React 5 product box over another 5 gum slogan “
SimulateStimulate Your Senses”. (I assume that 5 Gum’s copywriter is the zombified corpse of Jean Baudrillard.)
Contrast the the TV-production treatment of the product images in the beginning and end of the ad with the glossy Hollywood production of the sci-fi story. The only flickering we see during that portion of the ad is on the closed circuit TV monitor that shows the reactions of the test subjects.
The ad has triggered an important postmodern cue. We are watching media within media. A sci-fi movie bracketed by commercials. The ad is not a simulation of a test of some futurist black liquid. The ad is a simulation of you watching a television broadcast of a sci-fi movie from the time you turn the set on to the time you turn it off.
The commercial is not selling gum directly or indirectly. It is selling it meta-directly. Semiotically.
The commercial is selling us on the ability of technology to simulate an experience that induces in us awe and wonder–that’s their pitch. To get us to buy in that the awe an wonder can apply to a commodity product like gum requires a staged pitch.
Notice that the test subjects are not reacting to the beauty of these flowers and animals, which sadly in their post-apocalyptic future can only be rendered in some rheological ichor. The test subjects in the commercial are reacting to the ichor itself, to the technological marvel of a viscous fluid that through science can be manipulated to approximate the shape of a natural object.
The test subjects, all members of the same key 18-34 demographic as the 5 Gum consumer, express wonder at the ability of the mysterious substance to change shape before their eyes. The are amazed by the shape-shifting sludge, not the flowers or birds. Their reaction is the childlike awe we get when confronted with advanced technology, which as Arthur C. Clarke said “is indistinguishable from magic.” The test subjects here are all wide-eyed innocents. The substance is a mystery to them and mystery is the heart of magic.
The scientist’s role in the ad is not trivial. He is consumerism’s quintessential out-of-demo-out-of-mind old white guy who apprehends technology scientifically, linearly, and logically. But because of this, he is no longer in awe of that technology, and has lost his innocence because of it. This is why he (and all old white guys) can so stoically and soullessly control and exploits technology to manipulate the younger generation. Or so marketing thinks the younger generation believes.
The test subjects are in awe of some futuristic new magical substance. They are amazed that this mysterious black oil can hang suspended in air and then change to take on the shape of some natural object. They have no idea how it works, that the old man’s job.
You are also in awe of the technology on display in that scene, but you perceive it on a different narrative level. Not on the level of the test-subject characters in the movie, but on the level of the TV viewer who flicked on his TV at the start of the ad and will flick it off 47 seconds later.
You, as the viewer of the simulated TV broadcast are in awe of the magic of special effects. This is the magical ability of artificially generated imagery to look real. The viewer on the narrative level of the TV broadcast is supposed to be amazed by the special effects that went into the black shape-shifting oil on display in the movie, because precisely how those images are created to look so realistic remains a mystery to them. The metaphorical old white scientist is present here but in the back of your mind–all the engineers, programmers, and linear thinkers who create the movie magic that induces in us the same childlike wonder the test subjects express. Like the test subjects who express wonder even though they know what they see is a manipulation and willing subject themselves to it, you the viewer know that the special effects imagery is fake but are still amazed by it. Knowing that a magic trick is just a trick makes it no less magical. But knowing how the trick works is what makes it lose its magic. The fantastic nature of an object of desire is what drives you to it, but reaching it destroys the fantasy.
The test subjects are in awe of the technology of the fluid. The TV viewer is in awe of the technology of special effects. This concept, being in awe of the magic of technology, echoes up through the layers of narrative in the ad to resonate in our minds so that the next time we are at the store and we see the React 5 Gum package, we immediately think “there’s that amazing mysterious gum.” Immediately thereafter, the consumer’s ordinary cognitive process kicks in , and they ask, “What makes this mysterious gum amazing?”
It doesn’t matter how or even if the consumer answers that question, because asking it means they’ve already bought into the idea that the gum is amazing. And how do you not buy something that is amazing?
No related posts.