I meant to post about Little Baby’s creepy ice cream ad weeks ago, but it fell off my radar until someone dropped a .gif from it into an Email thread, thus derailing my afternoon into a frenzy of philosophical investigation. (That is: I required an explanation, or at least a phenomenological description, and I knew I had notes on disgust around somewhere.)
Have you seen this ad? Here you go. I’m sorry.
Horrifying, right? In On Disgust, philosopher Aurel Kolnai gives a description of the types of sensory experiences that tend to cause disgust and the effect this has on the mind. In brief: disgusting sensations (usually tastes or smells) are proximal, threatening to get on or near or (heaven forbid!) inside of us, and usually take a form that we consider fundamentally Other to us (such as the taste of decay). Sights, Kolnai says, are usually only disgusting in a more conceptual way–for example, the sight of a cockroach might gross us out because we in no way want that thing on or near us. Kolnai’s phenomenology of disgust came be summed by the exclamation “Get away from me!”: a visceral, involuntary, but ultimately redressable feeling that distinguishes itself from fear or anger. The “This is a Special Time” ad pretty much hits all of those disgust markers, presenting us with an unblinking, otherworldly creature covered in lumpy, viscous cream–in fact, eating the goo right off of its own head. (For some folks, especially those with a particular squeamishness about human hair or staring eyes, I have no doubt that the ad veers from simple, surmountable disgust straight into abject horror.) There is a striking contrast between the spoken message of the video–that Little Baby’s will make you want to jump and hug and express joy, that “ice cream is a feeling” (presumably a pleasant one)–and the medium, from stilted delivery to perplexingly alien ice cream eater.
Unsurprisingly, the video provokes strong reactions, including rejection (“I will never buy this product,” says an anonymous letterwriter and a million others), mock horror (HuffPo: “You may never sleep again”), and. . . art theory? (Philadelphia Weekly: “[a co- founder] explains that the trio is heavily influenced by the Situationist, Dada, détournement and culture-jamming art movements of the 20th century that engaged in pranks and spectacles and subverted common experiences as social or political statements, or simply to make life interesting.”) The Youtube video embedded above has more than twice as many “likes” as “dislikes,” seeming to suggest that for as many people who may feel viscerally repulsed or annoyed by this off-putting ad, there are many more who will defend the company for doing something unusual or playful.
The series Mad Men has spent five seasons exploring the ways that advertising exploits or creates desire in consumers, encouraging them to fulfill basic human needs–love, appreciation, interestingness, whatever–with new products. But today’s consumer grew up ad-savvy, and have been consumers long enough to grow fairly cynical about marketing. It is unsurprising, then, that there is no small amount of approval for a startling ad that thwarts our expectations for ice cream promotion. (When I taught an advertising unit to my first year college writing classes, we’d call this advertising style “ironic”–ads that intelligently and creatively play on the intelligent and creative consumer’s need to feel smarter than the ad.)
Just. . . don’t watch it while you’re eating lunch, as I just tried to do while wrapping up this post.