First off, almost any really controversial ad is *designed* for precisely that – and not only ads. We live in jaded, decadent times filled with endless content. What’s the way to get maximal violent attention? Say something that hits people in their basic reactions. Their guts, their biases, their (to paraphrase Orwell) bellyfeels. If you want to attract conservative controversy (which will draw in leftist controversialists), flagrantly attack God or the Founders or sexual restraint or opposition to abortion, as hard and as snarkily/demeaningly as possible, in the headline, lede, and first paragraph. If you want to attract leftist controversy, do the same with a story of someone defined as marginalized and lower-hierarchy being demeaned or hurt by a mainstream and higher hierarchy-person. If you want to attract libertarian controversy, find some way in which total freedom is being threatened. But do it, else your audience is lost to the next social media alert. Such are the times we are living in.
The archetype of the deliberately controversial ad, which calculatedly uses every means to create attention very much including negative attention, is Carly Fiorina’s “demon sheep” ad of 2010 – http://www.npr.org/sections/itsallpolitics/2015/05/07/404977168/-tbt-fiorinas-demon-sheep-went-down-in-political-ad-infamy . The deliberately crude, somewhat incoherent, low-fi ad was bankrolled by a very rich candidate and created by a very well-regarded ad maker. Thus, every point was constructed to create maximum controversy, including the faux-incompetence. It generates the type of newsy buzz that’s far more effective at getting attention than any kind of linear, sincere direct approach.
So. Almost any ad from a major, sophisticated source that has content that’s going to shock, offend, or overjoy us on the basic reaction level is deliberately done so.
Now, the ad. Well-enough known by now, this is not the complete ad but is the business end of it: http://www.adweek.com/files/imagecache/node-blog/blogs/bloomingdales_ad_weird_0.png
The headlines online were legion: Bloomingdale’s touts date rape for the holidays. There was feminist outrage (as there should be about rape). There was the usual mechanical online fury, followed by the usual mechanical apology. And Sharon Presley was worked up enough about it to maintain it advocated rape by males.
But let’s pause for a moment. Not easy in our day and age, but let’s try.
What does the ad *actually* communicate? Not seized on as the thousandth uniform piece of evidence for one of our hobby horse positions. Not what everyone else is screaming it is. What does *it* show?
It shows two attractive models photographed traditionally, against a traditional color backdrop, dressed very elegantly. The woman has her face turned from the man and she is laughing almost in triumph. He is looking a bit skeptically, but not surprised. Note the pulled back edges of his lips – there’s a slight discomfort; if they had words they might say “She got me.” Note the gender-neutral pronouns in the words: “Spike your best friend’s eggnog when they’re not looking.”
There is not one shred of support for the following embedded premises projected onto this ad (which embedded process I consider a major unidentified fallacy of our time, congruous with the utter unwillingness to question one’s interpretations, especially of opponents):
1: that the written phrase is an editorial statement by Bloomingdale’s – it could have been something one of the characters thought, or had just said (which does not mean that either of them agrees with it either – they could have been quoting a third person)
2: that any spiking actually happened
3: that spiking is per se connected with date-rape
4. that spiking eggnog means the use of a date-rape drug
5: that the male was the spiker and not the spikee – indeed, the photo suggests the opposite, my pointing out of which sent Sharon Presley into orbit
And, perhaps most contra-evidentially: that best friends date or have sex. Those very words alone exclude the date-rape scenario.
The ambiguity in the ad is entirely purposeful. I don’t think they realized there would be this level of online rage, but they knew there would be something. Even if there had been none, the ad would have been effective, because *ambiguity generates arousal*. The ad’s deliberate ambiguity is functioning as a kind of Rorschach test, showing what people bring to the ad.
For my part, I instantly read it as a deliberate evocation of an earlier time – say, the 1930s to 1960s – when drink-spiking was a socially acceptable prank or gag and a movie trope. It fit perfectly with the soft elegance of the photography and the high-status signaling especially around the female; also the traditionality of eggnog. Given the modernity of the models themselves, again especially around the female, that furnished another level of slight cognitive dissonance – which once again conduces to arousal.
It’s all about arousal.
Would you be looking at the ad if there weren’t all this controversy? I had hardly thought of Bloomingdale’s in ages, but now I sure am. Mission achieved.
And the arousal went beyond Bloomingdale’s dreams.
And this is why our times are hyper-aroused but utterly unfulfilled.