Simulating the Simulated Experience. With Gum.

Posted on by Pastabagel and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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?

 

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19 Responses to Simulating the Simulated Experience. With Gum.

  1. nohope says:

    In the end, technology is not the magic itself — it’s the magic wand. The magic is in the manipulation of symbols, hacking (to use a technological metaphor) or conjuring (if you prefer) the invisible substrate of the human mind. It makes people DO things. It makes people GIVE YOU things. Like money. Or sex, or protection, or fame… As the scientist in the ad might tell you, making goop turn into various forms isn’t the magic; the magic is in the power of that mystifying substance to bring those young people under his control.

  2. cat says:

    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.

    The gum is the boring black tar that is mysteriously transformed through science/ special effects/ plugging yourself into the Matrix into an incredible simulation of a natural substance/ flavour.

    Gum is boring. It’s everyday, it’s mundane, it’s those small packages in every shop that you see so often you don’t see. How can you transform this everyday object into something amazing (because you can you not buy something that’s amazing)?

    You transform it by telling the viewer/ buyer/ consumer that old white scientists have worked hard using techniques you wouldn’t begin to understand to manipulate chemicals to give you a futuristic out of this world experience. They’ve transformed the black goo into an octopus!

    So the ad makes you buy the gum. But wait! Reaching the object of desire destroys the fantasy. So you buy the gum, and it’s chewy and a bit minty, but the mint flavour wears off in a minute. How can this be?

    That’s where the ad makes you buy the gum again . Because even though the gum is ordinary gum in this world, you, the viewer/ test subject/ consumer/ cud chewer know that really, when you plug yourself into the Matrix, it can transcend that and become the experience of a real flower. You know the secret, you have seen the technology of the black fluid. “Even though this mysterious gum seems ordinary, it’s really not.”

  3. This commercial, and the others, make references to movies (this is Matrix; the other one is Mission Impossible), and so the tag line, “each person experiences it differently” is true, but we experience it all as references to movies. Which is fine for the ad agency, because their product is the ad. It’s a great piece of “work” (and viral marketing– it came with a mystery package you had to go online to unlock). This ad could just as well have been for coffee or USAirways.

    When you push the envelope in your creative, [consumers] go with you because they understand that your hyperbole lets them suspend their disbelief,” said Paul Chibe, Wrigley’s VP of U.S. gum and mints.

    The 5 refers to five senses (there are ten flavors, none of them flavors: “Cobalt”, “Rain”, etc). The name of the gum purposely hides its purpose so that it can become the ad campaign, it can become the brand. You’re not buying gum, you’re buying whatever experience this ad is, which, per the print ads, is technoorgasm.

    “Convention is that you buy your flavor by pack color, and when you get to the shelf you see a circus of color,” he said. For 5, black signifies premium, Mr. Chibe said, comparing it to black iPods.

    Or it could have sold ipods. When the medium is the message, there’s no other message.

  4. Vigil says:

    Apparently everyone experiences it differently. What I saw:

    Black goo is a high-tech 3d Rorschach test. In the cuts seen from afar, we see meaningless black goo. Each of the test subjects sees something different in it. The goo doesn’t transform in the commercial, from flower to bird to octopus, but cuts from one to the other as we see each person’s point of view.

    Mr. Goo Scientist can’t make you see an octopus, but he cares about your experience, what you do see. Gum company can’t tell you their gum is delicious, but they’re inviting you to try for yourself, as if your unique gum experience were important to them.

    I sure would like a shot at being strapped into the goo hallucination machine. I suppose I’ll have to settle for gum.

    • snufkin says:

      Not only what Virgil said, but the main message of the commercial is that this experience, this wonderful gum (which, in the darkness of your body, certainly resembles the undifferentiated goo hovering above the three subjects/participants) tailors itself to be the ideal experience for *you*.

      “You,” the commercial says, “are unique, and this gum recognizes your specialness, and presents you with the exact pleasure experience you would desire. The gum knows you even better than you know yourself, you perfect snowflake, you.”

      It appeals to our narcissism, of course.

    • Vigil says:

      Oh, and then to analyze:

      It seems to be a theme in advertisements. “We make the clothes, you make them awesome! By buying and wearing them!” “We made this super device phone pod, but you make it yours by apping that shit up and using it like a boss!” “We made this gum, but it doesn’t really have a flavour until you taste it!”

      I am a unique and special snowflake!

      These commercials show us:
      1. People experiencing or using things differently.
      2. All of the different ways are awesome.

      It’s easy to buy into the first part, because we all know everyone experiences things a little differently, uses things differently, and we want to believe we’d experience and use it in our own special way. They make that part explicit, and because we believe it, or want to believe it, we let it through our skeptic filter.

      Then comes the sneaky part. Now that it is YOUR experience, it’s your fault if it sucks, so it had better be awesome. Even if you resist thinking this way, the images that show us the first part (people experiencing things differently) are the same images that show us the second part (all these ways are awesome), and our brain gets Trojan horsed.

  5. Pastabagel says:

    Black goo is a high-tech 3d Rorschach test. In the cuts seen from afar, we see meaningless black goo. Each of the test subjects sees something different in it.

    This is really perceptive, and I hadn’t considered it. But when people take a Rorschach test they aren’t typically in awe of what they see in the blots. What is awe-inspiring (for the subjects) is that the inkblot is made in 3d of suspended goo moreso than that they see a bird or an octopus in that goo.

    • Vigil says:

      It’s not perceptive. It’s the face value of the commercial. Also, this is the future– suspended goo doesn’t impress me. We just walked into a crazy tech chamber chair like it ain’t no thang, and pressed the button on the arm like we do every day, and took a ride up into a giant room with a robotic arm that shoots science out of it, without batting an eye. We’ve been here before. No one is showing us anything new. It doesn’t matter what they’re showing us, it’s what we’re seeing.

      My only question is: why does the guy see an octopus? I get that they needed to choose something beautiful and awe-inspiring that wasn’t something girly like a bird or flower (though I think of octopi as feminine, personally), but after those two cliche choices, octopus seems a bit bizarre (though I can see the association with ink). Maybe after establishing what was going on with two cliche choices, they wanted to work in the special-snowflake aspect.

      If you like pure simple perception of what they’re showing, here’s everything I noticed.

      He is the focus of the commercial– they show his reaction last, so that it sticks in your mind, but he’s also in the center. His expression is the widest, most exaggerated– when you see them all at :42, the women look almost bored to me, and he’s like a kid on Christmas morning. He’s the one we see look up and zoom up in the chair, at the beginning.

      Look at the closeup of the woman at :36, seen from an angle. The camera focus is not on her eyes, but her lips (how’s your breath?). The voice-over is done by a sexy-sounding gravelly-voiced male, and not a robotic sort of female voice (seems like it had to be one or the other). The timbre of his voice complements the flickering screen, but unlike the image, his voice comes through clear.

      Speaking of sound design, listen to it. Scene begins, flick some switches, the clean echoey soundscape we’d expect from this sort of scifi dystopia, and then rising sounds. We’re rising through the tubes, pitch increasing, and there’s a helicoptery sort of throb, the rate of which also increases. Dr. Goo then flicks his own switches, and more rising sounds. We reach a crescendo, pause for a breath, and then the goo machine ejaculates all over everything.

      The goo sound is the sort of natural sound of metal pipes talking, the wandering overtones of a very low fundamental frequency. The metallic nature of it is a good choice for sci-fi, and it suggests something big, but it’s also good because it allows you to subtly manipulate the quality of the sound from noise to consonance, without having it stick out to our ears. And with so many frequencies dancing in series above the fundamental, as with the chaotic spray of the Rorschach test, you can hear all sorts of things: notes, chords, semblance of speech.

      When the image of the flower comes up, consonant tones are sneakily inserted– there’s a strong third as it blooms. The third says “simple, happy, major chord.” Perfect for a flower. For the second woman and her bird, consonance is inserted again: the tones become very tonicky. The same note as the fundamental pitch, but octaves higher. The octave says “purity, strength.” Goes well with the bird. For the guy, fuck happy consonance and cliche symbols of beauty, I’m seeing an octopus, and the sound gets buzzier and chaotic due to weight being given to the higher overtones. Then both the sound and “ink” get swallowed up.

      I guess what I’m saying is that I liked your post and it made me think and look again at this commercial (though perhaps I’ve looked too closely).

      • snufkin says:

        Octopus associations: deep sea adventure, diving, action.

        Implication: gum is exciting!

        I don’t think you’re looking too closely. That’s the fun – seeing the (possible) thought processes of the very creative people who are attempting to communicate and manipulate through their chosen medium.

  6. FrederickMercury says:

    these comments make me wish i had gotten home earlier so i could state the obvious and get pastabagel to call me perceptive :(

    i think there’s a lot of overthinking going on here, especially considering the misunderstanding of the material.

    • shaydlip says:

      I doubt they are overthinking it.

      Creating a tv-commercial advertisement is an incredibly difficult thing to execute. In this case, in 47s (usually 30s), you have to communicate several things: what the product is, why the consumer should care about that type of product, and lastly why that type of product is better than the others. Can you convince a random person that the job you do (not your title… actually what you *do* everyday) is important and compelling in 5 minutes, much less 47s? For diverse audiences? I would be hard-pressed to imagine that commercials like these do anything in their commercial that without purpose.

  7. Comus says:

    I don’t know whether I should be extremely overjoyed or severely depressed over the fact that one of our most fundamental philosophical questions of consciousness- the question of qualia – is used to sell chewing gum. One interesting aspect in addendum to all of those already mentioned is the very way the selling here is done. Instead of going the familiar route, where people enjoying gum, laughing, socializing, being happy to the point of being jejune, where the message is “eat the gum – be happy” this advert does not force a reaction to you, it goes even so far it overly emphasizes the point that you can experience it in your own, special, way. You, the individual are in control. We approve of your reactions, be they flowery or octopied. Our product is made by you. We salute you, consumer, in being a crucial part of us.

  8. BHE says:

    I also saw this as a Rorschach-type blob in which everyone sees something different. But I would take the Matrix implications a step further:

    There is no real reason to chew gum, barring freshening your breath, or I suppose blowing bubbles if you are inclined to annoy the piss out of your friends and spend the evening freezing your hair. So any gum that isn’t flavored “something-mint” better bring a hard sell if I’m going to chomp along aimlessly. And to me the hardest sell out there, the one that brings ‘em in every time, is the “you don’t have to do shit and your whole life can change” pitch. I know TLP has tread this ground, but this was the essence of the Matrix (I’m just a dude but one day some guy knocks on my door and tells me I’m the world’s savior, also I can learn kung fu without trying) and the key to the success of Harry Potter, The Bourne Identity (my personal favorite) etc. IMO, *that* is what they want you to feel about the gum. They want you to have the emotional connection to the gum you had to those movies–where you allowed yourself to fantasize (again) that if the right scenario happened, you could be everything you’ve always believed yourself to be. They hope they can make you feel that for a moment, and that the next time you see 5 gum on the shelves, there’s still a tinge of that remaining. So you say to yourself, ‘fuck it, I’ll give it a try’, not really knowing where the impulse is coming from: that little voice inside you that wants the easy way out. What could be easier than chewing a piece of gum?

  9. vprime says:

    I showed this post to my college rhetoric and composition classes. Their responses were that such analysis is way too much to spend on a gum commercial, which was “just cool” and “badass” and after all, it’s just interesting imagery that has no deeper meaning. I wanted to introduce Baudrillard’s ideas about simulacra and how the Virtual is more real to us now than the Real. They seemed not to see a difference between Virtual and Real. I think the references to The Matrix already seemed dated to them.

  10. Pastabagel says:

    I showed this post to my college rhetoric and composition classes. Their responses were that such analysis is way too much to spend on a gum commercial,

    I love it when college kids and teenagers say things like this. Would they be interested in such an analysis if they knew it could lead to a six-figure job at an ad agency like BBDO, who created this ad and was probably paid millions to create it?

    • vprime says:

      Yeah, I mentioned that ads are expensive to make and not likely to just be thrown together randomly. It always makes me laugh when I hear how “media-savvy” and aware Gen Y is. These are the kids you can’t market to!

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