Irony and absurdity are amusing – but do they sell?

Does the definition of freedom give you the right to shout WASS-AH-BE in a crowded Japanese restaurant? Even if it's just a beer commercial? Apparently, the answer is yes. What you've got to wonder is, just how much beer is this...

Does the definition of freedom give you the right to shout WASS-AH-BE in a crowded Japanese restaurant? Even if it’s just a beer commercial? Apparently, the answer is yes. What you’ve got to wonder is, just how much beer is this thing going to sell?

The Budweiser campaign started with a spot in which rather simian young men phone each other and stick their tongues out for what seems like an eternity while making the exaggerated ‘a’ sound in Wha-a-a-a-sup? Some of us thought this was a really stupid idea. The joke was on us. Because now we know that it was nothing less than the opening shot in an all-out assault on the World Record for the Ultimate Ironic Device Employed in an Advertising Campaign. Trust me, these guys are so far out there beyond Letterman, it’s breathtaking.

The basic premise of all beer advertising is, you will recall, to show beer drinkers their ideal selves, so much hipper, prettier, cooler, richer, harder-working and more fun-loving than they are in real life.

From those long-ago Labatt 50 people, with their big hair and short shorts and push-’em-out-to-there bras having so much fun painting some guy’s boat in dry dock, to the pick-up hockey game in the middle of Bay Street, you flattered the poor schmoes into thinking their girlfriends were prettier, their tummies tighter, their work more manly, their revels so much better lit and choreographed than in the grubby, sullen ennui than passes for reality.

Not Bud. Not now. These guys are doing exactly what the people watching the commercials on TV are doing! They’re doing nuthin’! They’re watching the game…havin’ a Bud! Whassup? Nuthin’ is up, stupid. These guys are having less fun than you are, right this moment! And just to show us Budweiser knows exactly that this is irony, did you notice the power line? One word: True.

This premise established, the campaign now appears to be gearing up to make even more of nuthin’ than we ever dreamed. There’s a spot on now where the guy who’s watchin’ TV, having a Bud is at home on the couch with a girlfriend who’s shrieking with excitement at a figure skating competition. Another guy who’s calling from the bar, watchin’ the game, havin’ a Bud, hears the little feminine screams and gasps and draws the obvious conclusion. What game you watchin’? is the punchline.

This brings us to the Japanese restaurant. Thirty seconds of insanity, during which one customer pronounces the word wasabi at the top of his lungs with an ah sound, and a mob of waiters and sushi chefs yell it back with an aw sound. The thing builds to a hysterical crescendo, wonderfully shot and cut, until the customer’s lady shuts everyone down in mid-wasabi with a table-rattling forehand. Will this stuff sell beer? What do you think?

Irony’s cousin, Absurdity, is nicely represented in the current Intel Pentium Processor campaign, The Power of Three. It features three (get it?) Blue Men, creating wildly imaginative representations of the Pentium III logo with bizarre, wordless physical humour.

As you might expect, it explains nothing, clarifies nothing, promises nothing, and depending on your point of view, may or may not sell anything.

It is also weird, inventive, violent, and depending on your point of view, funny. I think Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton would have found it funny, but David Ogilvy? I dunno, man.

The gag in each spot is how The Blue Men contrive to manifest the three exclamation marks (green bars anchored by black squares) that form the Pentium III logo. Not to bore you with what would read like a silent movie director’s script, the action involves the first two Blue Men using the green bars as giant piano keys, or treadmills, or as the subject of a huge painting on a white wall. Each time, the third Blue Man manages to upstage the first two, usually at catastrophic physical cost to himself.

The third man passes the other two by using a scooter instead of running on the green exclamation bar treadmills, and gets hurled down the black hole of the square dot for his trouble. In my favourite, after watching the other two paint the green bars with (a) a giant roller and (b) a catapult firing balloons filled with green paint, the third dumps a bucket of green paint over his bald blue head, propels himself 30 feet up the wall, only to slide down, leaving a thick green stripe in his wake, and fall lifeless to the ground as a result of his exertions.

Is entertainment good advertising? Now here’s my idea. Let’s select the best 30 seconds from the chariot race in Ben Hur, and super your logo over the last three seconds. Hey, it could do you a lot of good, buddy! I mean you’re out there on air selling stuff, and it’s not exactly makin’ the earth move, am I right?

Barry Base creates advertising campaigns for a living. He writes this column to blow off steam, and as a thinly disguised lure to attract clients who may imagine working with him could be a productive and amusing experience. Barry can be reached at (416) 924-5533, or faxed at (416) 960-5255, at the Toronto office of Barry Base & Partners.