The all-white blind taste test commercial set is an instantly familiar setting. The only distinguishing features are the products and the participant – no other distraction. In its latest ad campaign, the ironically edgy canned water brand Liquid Death is launching a new line of flavored sparkling waters, and to prove the premium positioning of its Severed Lime, Mango Chainsaw and Berry It Alive flavors, the brand is putting them to the test against some of the most expensive liquids out there. Kind of.
Why put your fizzy water against La Croix or Polar when you can blindly test your $1.99 cans of Liquid Death against tallboys of Lobster Béarnaise Sauce ($50), Liquid Japanese Wagyu Cheeseburger ($51), Spanish Squid Ink ($58) ) and beluga caviar ($580)?
The result is what you would expect. † † if you’d expect people to gag in surprise, sway dry, and tell the director to fuck off. Did Liquid Death actually expect someone to prefer a beluga caviar smoothie over a lime-flavored sparkling water? Of course not. The taste test is not the point. It’s just the vehicle for the point.
Mike Cessario, CEO and co-founder of Liquid Death, says the idea was to mess with an advertising trope that people are used to seeing. “So how can we joke about that in a way that feels like Liquid Death?” he says. “Ultimately, we’re not really trying to get people’s opinions. We’re playing a joke. This is just putting that joke in a familiar ad format. It’s almost like a watered-down Jackass, to give people something funny to look at.”
To be honest, the ads are damn funny. They’re also the latest in the long, somewhat venerable tradition of using advertising tropes to create more advertising that doesn’t really feel like advertising.
In 2006, Geico had a hit with his “Airport” ad, in which the infamous Caveman sees himself in a Geico ad. One of the insurance brand’s biggest award winners in recent years was a digital video ad called “Unskippable,” a parody of YouTube pre-roll ads featuring a dog that won’t sit still.
In 2008, Pizza Hut decided that the best way to convince people to try its new line of pasta was to trick them into thinking they were at a fancy restaurant. It’s a Candid Camera-esque trick used by brands for decades, dating back to Folger’s coffee duping Tavern on the Green diners in the 1980s.
The piece resurfaced in 2016 when McDonald’s hired Los Angeles chef Neal Fraser to create a five-course meal for food critics using only the fast-feeder ingredients. The trope was largely put to rest after being hilariously faked on Saturday Night Live in 2018, with Adam Driver violently insulting that Burger King would try to disguise its burger coffee as premium (and fictitious) Domenicos. At least for now.
In 2019, LeBron starred James in a Sprite commercial to tell us he would never tell us to drink Sprite, even if he was in a Sprite commercial (which, again, he was).
Is it anti-advertising? No. False advertising? mock? It doesn’t really matter what we call it. By subverting the form, the brands tell us we are smart. All the other sheep may fall for contrived concepts like the blind taste test and its sterile environment, but not you. To you, they’re just postcards of pop culture absurdity.
They are a media shorthand that provides a platform for advertisers to stand on and makes it easier to be funny. Skipping the middleman of the SNL ad parody and making fun of oneself creates the image of self-awareness.
It usually works, because we’re so inundated with (usually horrifying) commercials that anything that sympathizes with that fact and makes us laugh is a sight to behold.
But like the mockumentary TV style, the more ads try to subvert advertising, the harder it is to actually do it, and the sooner its effectiveness as a device will fade. As a senior ad manager told me this week, self-aware advertising is a huge comedic perk, but the difficulty of getting it done is already incredibly high. †
Reynolds’ particular set of self-aware advertising skills went nuclear in 2019 when he featured three different brands in one ad: a Netflix ad for his movie 6 Underground, in an Aviation Gin ad, in a Samsung QLED TV ad. There is also a joke about mid-roll ads in it. Ladies and gentlemen, the legendary advertising turducks.
So of course let’s laugh at the dry hilarity Liquid Death pours out for us. But just as I think you have to get rid of retired focus group spoofs by setting the bar impossibly high for future generations of sketch comedy, we’re getting dangerously close to becoming oversaturated with self-aware ads. Culture can only handle so much spoof before it needs a bucket of its own.
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