Cuckoo for Cocoa Ads

The good folks at M&M/Mars and BBDO New York have combined recently to give the world one of the more uplifting cinema experiences of the year: a series of commercials in which hapless, ambitionless zeroes with terrible haircuts make improbable journeys from their couches to the throne of mankind after eating Snickers bars.

These plot-heavy monstrosities that have lately been sullying the timeouts of NFL games are, I think, the most hateful spots produced this year. I was shocked to learn that they were not the work of the British, the usual masterminds of especially loathsome ad campaigns; the key villains here appear to be Swedes. That said, the "Make it Happen With Snickers" series is revolting in a way that really transcends nationality. Like the industry itself, its ugliness is a global phenomenon.

If you haven't caught the spots yet, here's Adweek's enthusiastic summary of the worst of the three ads, a fiend called "President": "A man is sitting in his living room when he eats a Snickers. The burst of energy makes him help a friend move, and when he yells in pain after a couch falls on him, a talent scout hears his voice and signs him to be part of a boy band, "The Residents." When people mishear the band's name, they mistakenly elect him president – all thanks to a Snickers bar... Did you get all that? What could be the plot of a two-hour movie is stuffed into a 60-second spot, one of three new ads by BBDO that begin breaking today..."

Parenthetical message to the Adweek folks: you're wrong. This couldn't be the plot of a two-hour movie. Not one that wasn't dreamed up for use in torturing prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, anyway. Though, of course, for that purpose it would be beautifully effective, if only the storyline was continued a little. After the Snickers eater is elected president, he drops fuel-air bombs on Damascus and forces all women on the Arabian peninsula to work in bikini car washes. Cue the tagline: "Make it happen with Snickers – and air power!"

Take away their Korans and make them watch two hours of that: see how long it takes them to confess. Although there are a few detractors who think they're a little too busy, the BBDO/Mars ads are being hailed in the industry as bold, innovative pieces of filmmaking. It's not difficult to see why. The ads are conspicuously devoid of any of the the industry's top 1,000 visual or directorial cliches. There are no idiot dads acting like bumbling lunkheads in front of their sneering, wisecracking wives and children. There are no long slo-mos of creepy liquids pouring from one side of the screen to another. And there are no jittery pans of wind-swept groups of supermodels bursting with wacky, giggly happiness (they can't believe how wonderful it is to wear these clothes!) in the middle of deserted city landscapes.

No, the BBDO ads are expensive, complicated pieces of cinema that try to disguise thievery of a whole range of recent marketing cliches in innovative visual spectacle.

For starters, "President" marks just the latest effort in an exploding election-year advertising phenomenon – the presidential campaign leitmotif. Barely a blip on the industry screen four years ago, this Bush-Kerry election is suddenly working like Spanish Fly on ad copywriters.

Three months ago the only serious offenders in this arena were Miller and Budweiser, who blasted each in the "President of Beers" spots with underhanded public slime campaigns that cannily anticipated the future course of the actual Bush-Kerry race.

But lately a whole slew of companies has followed suit. By my unofficial count, that group includes alcohol giant Brown-Forman, as well as Nextel, NetZero, Mattel, Maker's Mark, and Captain Morgan. Taglines for president-themed ad campaigns include B-F's "I'm Jack Daniel and I approved this message," and "Think Pink in 2004," the campaign slogan for Mattel's Barbie, who is running for president as the nominee of the "Party of Girls." The really sad thing about the latter campaign is that Barbie's "Pink" slogan˜ which stands for Peace, Inspiration, Nature, and Knowledge – sounds suspiciously like something stolen from the "out" bin at the Dennis Kucinich campaign headquarters. In other words, the legendary consumerist sex object Barbie is now too progressive for even the Democratic party. The "Pink" campaign has been kind of a dud, incidentally.

The ads also touch on recent cliches like "Purchase of our product allows you to surreptitiously explore your latent sexual identity conflict" (in one spot, a man eats a Snickers Cruncher and becomes a hairdresser), as well as the increasingly popular "Patronizing our evil multinational corporation will allow you to save the environment" (Man eats Snickers and invents environmentally friendly car, a nice homage to the recent green-friendly campaigns of Eddie Bauer and British Petroleum). This is in addition to the older junk-food concept, "Eating lots of our candy will make you a healthy jogger with clear skin who is desired by women."

But the thing that really irritates me about these ads is that they were directed by a Swedish shop called "StyleWar." First of all, no company should be named "StyleWar." That should be against the law, and the U.N., I think, should intervene when this order is violated. And certainly no company that is both named StyleWar and run by Scandinavians should be allowed anywhere near an NFL football game.

But what gets me about StyleWar is that it won its reputation on the strength of work it did for Ikea. Several of its Ikea ads, including a famous European spot called "Lamp," helped make the furniture giant the mightiest private company in the world (more people now read the Ikea catalogue than the Bible). That means that StyleWar has now been the chief creative force for two prominent multinational companies who have been attached to child labor and child slavery scandals.

The world's largest chocolate maker, M&M/Mars has still refused to endorse Fair Trade chocolate, meaning that it is still the largest purchaser of cocoa from Cote D'Ivoire, where 43% of the world's cocoa is produced. Groups like the ILO, the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture, and even the U.S. State Department have consistently reported the use of forced child labor in Ivory Coast cocoa farms. A 2002 study by the IITA estimated that 284,000 children, many of them immigrants brought in from countries like Burkina Faso by child traffickers, are working in the Ivory Coast farms. Mars, meanwhile, refuses to agree to minimum price levels and the rest of the Fair Trade chocolate program, which includes prohibitions on child labor. All so that we can have M&M/Mars' shitty chocolate (400 million M&Ms produced every day) at low prices.

Somehow to me that represents the beginning of the "two-hour movie" that was never made. Ghanaian 9-year-old climbs tree with machete, hacks open cocoa pods, taking two of his fingers with him. Plantation owner separates pods from fingers, pays child ten cents for his day's work, sells beans to distributor at half-price. Distributor sells cocoa at additional markup to Mars, which in turn makes hideous Snickers bars and sells them to Midwestern idiot with bad haircut, who is not in his living room but rather on a set in South Africa that looks like an American living room (StyleWar, ironically, shot the spots in Africa to cut down on production costs). After he eats the Snickers, he joins the boy band, becomes president, bombs Damascus, opens bikini car washes, etc. Tagline: "Make it happen with West African child labor – and Snickers – and air power!"

Now that would be a hell of a movie. But to be an artist in the marketing industry, you don't need to shoot the beginnings and the ends. Just the peanuts in the middle.

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