Ad Watch | Media

December 19, 2006

Animal Ad Nausea

Spokescreatures have evolved from cute to obnoxious.

Peter Jamison

I have been registering unease at the voguish habit of deploying animals in advertising campaigns for some time, but the last straw—that which finally spurred the realization that this phenomenon, like fascism, was one to be fought against rather than mused upon—came on a recent Sunday morning. I was leafing through the pages of the Wall Street Journal Weekend Edition when I saw it: a yellow spider, his bubbly, computer-generated likeness dangling by a thread in a full-page ad. He looked out at me from that page of newsprint with an air of disingenuous cuteness, his pupil-less eyes implying some nameless request. It seemed he might have been about to cry. I do not know, and I do not care. This was a potentially venomous invertebrate, not a toddler returning home with a scraped knee.

AI Bear
As A.I. showed, even the cuddliest of creatures can be dangerous.
Yet his mere presence on a full sheet of newsprint made one thing clear: The drive to sell goods through the entreaties of animals, always worthy of suspicion, has officially begun its decadent or baroque phase. Gone are the fuzzy days of the Downy fabric softener bear (although I will admit that ever since a close relative of that strange creature appeared in Steven Spielberg’s 2001 film Artificial Intelligence, I have harbored doubts about its probity). Never mind: We now find ourselves living in an age in which we are apparently expected to succumb to the wiles of less palatable beings. Some of them have eight legs; at least one that I know of has a beak. What, dear readers, shall we say of the Aflac duck?

I should perhaps admit here, by way of full disclosure, that I lived for some time in a region of France renowned for treating ducks in a sane and sensible way: by eating them. Natives of the Languedoc, in the southwestern part of the country, prize their duck-dominated menus, from the simple filet de canard (duck breast) to more unusual dishes such as confit de canard (duck preserved in its own fat) and salade avec gésiers (duck-throat salad, which, I am here to report, is crunchily delicious). The idea of a duck hawking life-insurance plans would strike my former neighbors as exactly what it is: a puzzling, but no less serious, abomination. Beyond such prima facie considerations, it is obvious that the Aflac duck is a particularly noxious and aggressive member of his species; he fits the role of the superlatively odious salesman better than many of his human counterparts. In commercials, he follows confused and uneasy passersby down the street or into barber shops quacking a single word—Aflac—the name of his product.

Only Yogi could shut up the duck (YouTube).
I will grant that there is a refreshing directness to this strategy, a sort of purity of line seldom found in the sales pitch. Yet the novelty of the duck’s approach will not sway me. I do not like him. The only fleeting moment of satisfaction in the Aflac ad campaign came when mon cher canard was silenced in a battle of wits by Yogi Berra, former baseball great and font of offbeat wit, who mystified the duck into shutting up with a series of those cryptic non sequiturs for which the elderly Berra is known. I consider this event on par with John Henry’s defeat of the steam drill; in both cases, men with recourse to none but their native powers scored a triumph over an inhuman and sinister force.

I haven’t the faintest notion where Madison Avenue’s present enthusiasm for the animal kingdom came from. Had I to venture a guess, I would say that you could trace it to a scenario involving a few novice copy writers, a late night working on deadline with the Discovery Channel playing in the background on mute, and a three-foot bong. But whatever this blight’s origins, its remedy, to my mind, is clear. The Federal Communications Commission already sees fit to impose onerous fines for the use of such innocuous profanities as "shit" and "fuck". The commissioners could readily be urged, I am sure, to set up prohibitive fees against companies who choose to vend their wares through the birds of the air and beasts of the field.

Come to think of it, the whole enterprise of animal salesmanship must contain something objectionable in it to the literal interpreters of sacred texts. If we can get a popular evangelical preacher on our side, taking care to steer him clear of methamphetamines and male prostitutes—revealed by recent headlines as the veritable Scylla and Charybdis of the life in Christ—I suspect our cause is won.

You who have come this far with me will, I think I can presume, sympathize to some degree with my complaint. And so I beg your indulgence in one last, brief discourse upon a creature that no earnest discussion of this subject can omit. I speak, my friends, of the most cloying and nefarious salesman of them all: the Geico gecko.

Note the eyes.
Where and how this sinister green huckster came to believe in his invincible cuteness, I do not know, but it is obvious that he possesses the notion unshakably. Like his fellows in other ad campaigns, he bears the sure mark of the bestial salesman: soulless and yet plaintive black eyes. (As a rule of thumb to which there are doubtless a few worthy exceptions, it is not wise to heed the arguments of those with eyes of one solid hue.) The Geico salesman represents a new and more severe level of danger, for he strikes the pose of the ingénue. This gecko with a British accent plays the fool. His pitches are knowingly clumsy; it is by this very quality that he hopes to trick us into lowering our guard, into tolerating his presence or, God forbid, buying his product.

Where on earth, I cannot help wondering, did the insurance industry get the idea that reptiles and ducks inspire the requisite degree of trust in a consumer? Allstate, by contrast, seems to my way of looking at things to have it right: The agency’s commercials star not an emu or a miniature donkey, but the commanding Dennis Haysbert, known for his role as the steady-as-she-goes President David Palmer in the hit Fox series 24. Haysbert, even of gaze, inquires of the viewer in a voice with the texture of granite, "Are you in good hands?" At last I am! I want to cry out. Better your hands, Mr. Haysbert, than those of a vulgar and self-satisfied lizard. Better indeed.

Related on the Web

Earlier this year, Forbes ranked spokescreatures by likability. Aflac's duck came in third, and Geico's gecko took fifth.

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Article by Peter Jamison

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