Dada Ads: Nihilism and Nonsense
A remarkable new school of advertising has surfaced in the past 10 years.
In my files are national TV commercials for 52 different products that all use the following two messages:
Message No. 1: Why you should buy this wonderful product.
Message No. 2: You're a damn fool if you do. Because it could make you sick and possibly kill you.
Dada Ads blow all the accepted rules of advertising out of the water. This is reminiscent of what The American Heritage Dictionary defines as:
Dada: a European artistic and literary movement (1916-1923) that flouted conventional aesthetic and cultural values by producing works marked by nonsense, travesty and incongruity.
"Dada" is French for hobbyhorse as well as one of baby's first utterances.
Founded in Zurich during World War I and famous in the 1920s, Dada was a wacky rebellion by a group of artists, writers and intellectuals against everything—war, the Establishment, the old rules of art, science and behavior.
My great Andover teacher and friend Patrick Morgan recounted what happened in Paris when a gathering was announced to hear a reading of the new Dada Manifesto. The intelligentsia of the art and literary world were abuzz with anticipation as they assembled in a seedy little meeting hall. On the platform was a desk with a single object on it—a giant alarm clock.
At the appointed hour, one of the Dada founders arrived—very likely the Romanian poet and performance artist Tristan Tzara, (1896-1963), who wrote the original manifesto. He was carrying a giant roll of toilet paper. He flipped a button on the alarm clock, which began ringing loudly. Whereupon he started unrolling the bumwad and reading his manifesto. Of course, with the noisy alarm, nobody could hear a word of what he was reading.
Each time the alarm bell petered out, Tzara stopped reading, rewound the alarm clock and began reading again from his roll of toilet paper. This went on for 40 minutes. At the end, the audience was outraged that they could not hear the manifesto.
"But that is Dada," was the explanation.
Tzara's actual manifesto was pure gibberish. A sampling from Robert Motherwell's 1967 translation:
If I cry out:
Ideal, ideal, ideal,
Knowledge, knowledge, knowledge,
Boomboom, boomboom, boomboom,
I have given a pretty faithful version of progress, law, morality and all other fine qualities that various highly intelligent men have discussed in so many books, only to conclude that after all everyone dances to his own personal boomboom, and that the writer is entitled to his boomboom: the satisfaction of pathological curiosity; a private bell for inexplicable needs; a bath; pecuniary difficulties; a stomach with repercussions in life; the authority of the mystic wand formulated as the bouquet of a phantom orchestra made up of silent fiddle bows greased with philtres made of chicken manure.
In other words, the whole thing was an elaborate put-on delivered deadpan.
But Dada survived and was the forerunner of Surrealism, Pop- and Op Art.
It has also the progenitor of Dada Advertising.
NOTE: See the mediaplayer at upper right for four works of Dada art by its premier practitioner, Marcel Duchamp.
The Absurdist World of Dada Advertising
I despise everything to do with sickness and death.
At the same time, I am morbidly transfixed by the yin and yang of what I call the Dada Advertising by the great pharmaceutical companies.
Dada advertising was legitimized in 1998 when Bob Dole—war hero, beloved senator and distinguished presidential candidate—starred in a TV commercial for Viagra, where he talked with jaw-dropping candor about his inability to get an erection.
The apotheosis of Dada Advertising was the Viagra commercial featuring a character borrowed from a Marlboro cigarette ad.
VISUAL: Photographed in murky greens and blacks, it opens with Marlboro Man (MM) in his pickup hauling a horse van and heading for an assignation. Suddenly the wheels of his truck are spinning uselessly in deep mud. On screen in huge type:
THIS IS THE AGE OF KNOWING HOW TO MAKE THINGS HAPPEN
MM opens the doors of the horse van and suddenly a pair of horses is pulling the pickup and the van across the muddy patch. Seconds later MM is back in the driver's seat, towing his horse van and arriving at the house where he will keep his appointment.
MUSIC: Soft rhythmic foxy trot.
MALE VOICE OVER: (with disclaimer in italics)
"You've reached the age where you don't back down from a challenge. This is the age of knowing how to make things happen. So why would you let something like erectile dysfunction get in your way? Isn't it time you talked to your doctor about Viagra. Twenty million men already have. With every age comes responsibility. Ask your doctor if your heart is healthy enough for sex. Do not take Viagra if you take nitrates for chest pain, as it may cause an unsafe drop in blood pressure. Side effects may include headache, flushing, upset stomach and abnormal vision. To avoid long-term injury, seek immediate medical help for an erection lasting more than four hours. Stop taking Viagra and call your doctor right away, if you experience a sudden decrease or loss of vision or hearing. This is the age of taking action. Viagra. Talk to your doctor. See if America's most prescribed E.D. treatment is right for you."
Of the 58-second spot, the narrator spends 22 seconds—more than one-third of the spot—on the disclaimers that threaten all kinds of health problems if MM ingests Viagra and goes through with his tryst.
The Greatest, Most Persuasive Line in the History of Advertising
In my opinion, the most powerful single line of copy anywhere was most likely not the product of a copywriter, but rather a case of accidental pure brilliance by a doctor or a lawyer. It absolutely dominates this commercial—and all other E.D. efforts (e.g., Cialis):
... seek immediate medical help for an erection lasting more than four hours.
All other Dada Ads for prescription drugs—with their disclaimers of illness and death—pale to insignificance next to potency of this image.
In short, I cannot think of any advertising ever where you are promised comfort and healing and then threatened with serious illness and death if you ingest the product.
The whole thing is ... well, Dada.
Takeaways to Consider
- Never before in advertising has a technique evolved whereby the same ad extols a product on the one hand and then trashes it a few seconds later by scaring hell out of the potential buyer.
- This oxymoronic advertising was legitimized with a Viagra commercial by war hero, senator and presidential candidate Bob Dole.
- Years ago, prescription drugs were sold direct to physicians only. Now the drug companies are going after consumers to put pressure on their doctors to prescribe these drugs. Viagra was the tip of iceberg. On my computer are examples of this technique for 52 prescription drugs.
- It seems to me that if a doctor prescribes one of these 52 products and the patient becomes ill or dies from a listed side effect, it could be the start of a messy malpractice suit.
- My opinion: the most startlingly powerful line of copy in the history of advertising is "... seek immediate medical help for an erection lasting more than four hours."
- If you have a better one, by all means let's see it!
- An itch I have wanted to scratch for several years is the creation of a neo-Dada work of art—a YouTube video on this strange genre of advertising that breaks all the rules, just as the Dada movement broke all the rules of art back in the 1920s.
- This video would string together all 52 disclaimers showing adults in the prime of good health taking part all kinds of activities while the lugubrious voice-over disclaimers describe the litany of horrible consequences that can result from ingesting the poisons being advertised.