I'm On a World Serpent

I’m On a World Serpent

Old Spice has made the commercial that will destroy America.

Ever since reading David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, I’ve been on the lookout for the commercial that will destroy America.

For those who haven’t read his po-mo doorstop, it describes (among other things) an escalating war of outrageousness between TV ad agencies at the end of the 20th century. It culminates in an ad for a hygienic tongue scraper. Foster Wallace describes an ad in which a pedestrian is offered a lick of a sidewalk vendor’s ice cream cone by a cute meter maid. As horrible as it is, he describes it in sentence fragments:

The lingering close-up on an extended tongue that must be seen to be believed, coat-wise. The slow-motion full-frontal shot of the maid’s face going slack with disgust as she recoils, the returned cone falling unfelt from her repulsion-paralyzed fingers. The nightmarish slo-mo with which the mortified pedestrian reels away into street traffic with his whole arm over his mouth, the avuncular vendor’s kindly face now hateful and writhing as he hurls hygienic invectives.

These ads shook viewers to the existential core […] V&V’s NoCoat campaign was a case study in the eschatology of emotional appeals. It towered, a kind of Uber-ad, casting a shaggy shadow back across a whole century of broadcast persuasion. It did what all ads are supposed to do: create an anxiety relievable by purchase. It just did it way more well than wisely, given the vulnerable psyche of an increasingly hygiene-conscious U.S.A. in those times.

The fictional NoCoat advertising campaign is the most singly effective ad campaign in the history of television and it destroys the television industry. It creates in its audience a terrifying compulsion to buy the advertised product. At the same time, it repulses the audience so much that no one’s willing to watch TV anymore.


The form of the destructor.

Ever since reading Infinite Jest (which I did only recently), I’ve been watching the growing Sturm und Drang surrounding commercials with fascination. For one thing, they have continued to escalate anxieties much as Foster Wallace predicted. Consider the really creepy Super Bowl commercials in 2010. Or the gloomy Tiger Woods Nike commercial, which (figuratively) flagellated Tiger Woods for his sins. Commercials have always played on fears and desires. But it seems, of late, that their messaging has gone (to paraphrase The Simpsons) from the subliminal to the liminal, and perhaps as far as the superliminal.

But one thing that Foster Wallace never predicted was the notion of viral commercials.

For the first hundred years of spectrum broadcast media, commercials were an unwanted burden. They were accompanied by jingles meant to trap them in your head. They were accompanied by gorgeous models and celebrity spokesmen. As the commercial airspace grew more crowded, they escalated the ridiculousness of their imagery. And no one was immune to their effects. The same cynical hipsters who laugh at Hummer commercials fall for the slick packaging of Apple products. The Midwesterners who snicker at products for feminine needs still order more Budweiser than any other beer. Commercials are like pollution – the price we pay for the wealth of entertainment. Nobody likes them, but we could not have as many shows and movies as we have without them.

Around the dawn of YouTube, however, the younger and nimbler ad agencies realized something. “Hey,” someone said, “if we make a commercial that’s ironic enough to appeal to the 18-35 demographic, they’ll circulate it for us. And people will watch it voluntarily!” Enter the viral video.

Look at your hand. What’s this? It’s a talk by Clay Shirky, author of Here Comes Everybody, given at TED in June 2010.

Look again. The talk is now a prophecy of doom.

24 Comments on “I’m On a World Serpent”

  1. Ray C #

    LOLcats are nowhere near the bottom of the pits that are the internet.


  2. mlawski OTI Staff #

    If Mustafa ever fought the Most Interesting Man in the World, that probably would mean Armaggeddon. Could the Universe possibly take such stress and awesomeness? I doubt it.


  3. Sylvia #

    “Now I’m on the World Serpent.”



  4. cat #

    In a way, I think you’re right…but word of mouth isn’t a type of social contract or unspoken agreement, and marketing doesn’t cause it to break down. We might fall prey to advertising but that doesn’t mean we won’t return to that base line and respond favorably to good word of mouth. Also, nothing is created by word of mouth. Sure, it’s a possible use of one’s time but it doesn’t produce anything and doesn’t contribute to a communal information database/cloud/storage space. Viral videos that get passed around don’t imitate word of mouth but utilize it.



  5. John Perich OTI Staff #

    @Cat: I think you and I are agreeing rather than disagreeing. Viral videos (created by marketers) hosted on the Internet (fiber-optic technology) are being promoted through word of mouth (an essential part of the social contract).


  6. Chris #

    I’ve never seen one of these Old Spice commercials in their entirety, because I do everything within my power to avoid advertisements (though, of course, I can’t avoid them entirely because we all find ourselves slowly suffocating on them in an existential sense) but I know enough about them to hate them. Commercials for years mostly have been nothing more than a sort of slight of hand magic trick, where they try and sell you something else in hopes it will get you to buy the product and I just find that so repulsive.

    Fortunately, I don’t know if this commercial is going to really lower the discourse of advertising, mostly because I don’t feel the discourse could be any lower. The Simpsons legend George Meyer in the thoroughly excellent book on comedy writing And Here’s the Kicker has two tremendous quotes on advertising:

    He calls advertising “an insane, diabolical siren song dragging us all to a horrific Koyaanisqatsi.” For the record, Koyaanisqatsi, according to Wikipedia, is a Hopi word meaning “crazy life, life in turmoil, life out of balance, life disintegrating, a state of life that calls for another way of living” So, while it’s not quite Ragnorak with the wolf Fenrir and Tyr the Norse God of War and Loki and all those dudes, he certainly has a feeling in the same vein.

    Also “advertising is a conscienceless industry, populated by cowards and idiots, that warps and drains everyone. It eggs on the worst in all of us. If I could eliminate either advertising or nuclear weapons, I would choose advertising.”

    So, I guess I really didn’t add much to this discussion other than the state of advertising in the world today is hideous and I hate it, but it is just one of the things in this world that really sets me off, probably because we are just so inundated with it. It’s an unwieldy behemoth threatening to destroy us all.


  7. rtpoe #

    The most insidious part about “viral marketing” is that the advertisers have persuaded us to do their job for them. And without pay! There’s nothing wrong with word of mouth, but does McDonalds or Mountain Dew really need us shilling for them?

    Our “mediaspace” has gotten so crowded that marketers either have to shout louder and louder or find some new way of invading our consciousness. They’ll do whatever it takes, and we’re playing right along.


  8. Brooks #

    It’s just “Wallace” not “Foster Wallace”


  9. richies^ghost #

    4chan’s /b/ and its anonymous community have been paralleled with Loki:


    “The 4Chan hivemind is essentially the modern day equivalent of the trickster Loki. Everything it does is simply for its own amusement and delights in the tears that are shed over its pranks, but at the same time it can’t ever be reasoned with or controlled.”

    This article and that statement have an interesting synchonicity. Considering that so many viral videos and assorted meme’s orginate with 4chan or gain a strong mommentum there, the control of such a forum would be an advertisers wet dream. One thing we can be sure of is that the consequences will never be the same.


  10. John Perich OTI Staff #

    @Brooks: people who go by three names (esp. writers) tend to be identified by the last two. e.g. Conan Doyle, Scott Fitzgerald, etc.

    @Richies: that’s also a good metaphor! It works in that neither /b/ nor Loki are expressly malicious – they help and hurt in equal measure. Until Ragnarok, that is.

    (And we talked a little about whether or not addressing 4chan was necessary for modern social media mavericks in a recent podcast!)


  11. John Perich OTI Staff #

    @Brooks: actually, I’m being an ass – “Conan Doyle” and “Scott Fitzgerald” are compound surnames, whereas “Foster” is David Foster Wallace’s middle name. Oops.


    • fenzel #

      If you consider Ragnarok as the planet on which most of Battletoads takes place, it becomes even more resonant! :-)


      • richies^ghost #

        Either is better than the literal, nuclear holocaust and winter that it can be interpreted as.

        Ddoes that big ole snake seem like a primite way of describing trans-oceanic fibre optic cabels to anyone else?


  12. cat #

    I suppose I find this ad less bothersome than everyone else because I think that something of value is being created. It’s more lolcats than Ushahidi but it serves a purpose. People circulate it because it brings them enjoyment and they want to share that with others.

    The character is a fascinating one. He claims that he as the Old Spice icon is living in a parallel universe to the one where the actor playing the icon is, but can also make a video addressing the actor and telling him to continue making videos. The character reinforces stereotypes of men and women. Men are the ones who go out and do things. Women are the ones who are passive, have things done to them, need to be protected, and prefer that passive role. He also seems to admit that finding that female romantic ideal of perfection is impossible. He is constrained by the stereotypes society imposes. While able to achieve much within the bounds of “masculine behavior”, he can’t sing Happy Birthday because it “could quite possibly be seen as feminine by men”. He seems to accept death as long as he passes with a glorious mourning (which I’ve always found odd since the deceased wouldn’t be aware of how they were being mourned) yet then goes on to describe how he would will himself not to die and thus prevent it. He tells his audience he loves them in the way many stars do but still occasionally mocks them.


  13. Gab #

    After reading this, I find the phrase “viral marketing” problematic in other contexts if compared to something like Old Spice Guy. I’m thinking mainly of ad campaigns for movies that leave clues for interested parties to look for something in or watch for suchandsuch an event to occur or what-have-you, like the _Dark Knight_ egg hunts around the country or its online “newspapers” (with two versions, the “original,” and one corrupted by the Joker) and political campaigns for Gotham City D.A.- stuff like that results in *more* than just talking about it with someone else and possibly watching it, but active participation within the advertisement itself (you read the “paper” and wave the mouse over the right part and hope something special will happen if you click; you get in your car and drive somewhere; you answer the fake poll on the fake campaign website). The people being advertised to have impetus in the way the ad itself functions- if they don’t click the right part, the hidden picture never appears; if they don’t drive to the diner at midnight, nobody ever finds the clue; etc. It’s viral, but a scary mutation, a totally different strain that operates on a far more manipulative level. I don’t know what to call ad campaigns that are *so* participatory- zombie virus ad campaigns, maybe?


  14. DaveMc #

    Until recently, I would have thought, with bright-eyed, fuzzy-minded optimism, that the mechanisms of actual friendship, and the associated word-of-mouth recommendations, could not be subverted artificially. I’d have guessed that despite advertisers’ best efforts, one’s friends would still filter out the noise and only send along things they genuinely thought you would like.

    But recently, I started noodling around on Facebook, where I learned that people will click on any damn thing and forward it to everyone they know, if it will give them a new doohickey for their virtual farm (or city, or Mafia empire). So the Ragnarok we face, for me, is one where apparently personal recommendations from alleged friends mean nothing, or are swamped by the deluge of not-really-recommendations.

    I’m basically done with Facebook, at this point. Email seems more direct, faster, and importantly, less filled with requests to help people’s virtual farms.


  15. Roxanne #

    Baldur’s mother is Frigg, not Freya.


    • DaveMc #

      You forgot the obligatory “Well, actually …” :)


    • John Perich OTI Staff #

      … damn it, you’re right. That’s two names I’ve got wrong in this article. Three if it turns out “Shirky” is a nom de plume, which I suspect it is.


  16. Josh #

    Hey John-first time reader, first time poster, but I’d like to point out that the dire future you portend may not be as imminent as you think: http://www.reelseo.com/24551/
    Old Spice’s sales are down. Assuming they stay that way, other marketers will feel no incentive to imitate their highly-successful-but-ironically-unsuccessful viral campaign.


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