Theoretically speaking, there is no bottom to the pop culture barrel, particularly as regards TV advertising. There will always be an ad that will sink lower and annoy more, always another commercial that will manage to limbo under our lowest expectations.
Wait . . . no . . . there is a bottom of the barrel! And welcome to it. I give you the ad for HeadOn, which has to be the worst, most irritating TV commercial ever made, that ever could be made. Compared to HeadOn, the awful Realcore diet pill ad (“Get rid of stubborn belly fat!”) is a soaring aria to the nobility of Man.
The ad is simplicity itself, if simplicity reminds you of North Korean propaganda. A woman rubs her forehead with what appears to be a roll-on deodorant while a female voice shouts: “HeadOn, apply DIRECTLY to the FOREHEAD! HeadOn, apply DIRECTLY to the FOREHEAD! HeadOn, apply DIRECTLY to the FOREHEAD! HeadOn is available without a prescription at retailers nationwide!” This is the 15-second spot. Because of the economics of basic cable advertising, the ad will often run back to back, so you get 30 seconds of “HeadOn, apply DIRECTLY to the FOREHEAD!” etc.
This is the sort of thing that sends people into bell towers with rifles.
When I first saw this commercial, I thought I must be missing something. What, exactly, does the product do? It appears to be a balm of some kind, but for what ailment? How many people suffer from forehead pain? Perhaps it was for headaches. And then I began to spy a certain kind of genius about the ad. A headache remedy ad that causes migraines. Brilliant!
Indeed, I began to wonder if it wasn’t maximally schlocky on purpose, the TV ad equivalent of outsider art. It has, after all, the surreal vertigo of some crazy piece of installation video or a Japanese blast ad, the kind accused of producing seizures. I also suspected the ad was supposed to be funny. For instance, there is this big yellow animated arrow pointing vigorously at the woman’s forehead, next to the words “apply directly to the forehead.” Wait, I’m confused. Where do I apply it?
This had to be some sort of spoof, some piece of carefully calibrated irony like the Old Navy or the Enzyte (natural male enhancement) campaigns. Perhaps it was a viral anti-ad that escaped the confines of the web somehow to reach legitimate TV. At least I wasn’t the only one baffled. A quick google of “Apply directly to the forehead” returned hundreds of pages, with many bloggers howling for medieval tortures to be applied to the person responsible.
He was easy enough to find. HeadOn is made by a company called Miralus Healthcare, which has offices in Canada and Florida (the actual product is manufactured in Chicago). With a couple of calls I managed to contact Dan Charron, vice president of sales and marketing. I asked if he was aware of the buzz.
“We first knew something was up when we found all the web pages devoted to the commercials,” he said. Did he also notice people saying it was the most awesomely awful commercial they’d ever seen? That surprised him. “Nobody in the focus groups said the ads were annoying,” he said, a statement that made me feel very sorry for focus groups.
But, come on, this is some kind of postmodern gag, right, a parody of the hyper-hard sell? Alas, no. “We didn’t intend it to be a joke,” Charron said. “The idea is that all our competitors are pills. Our product you apply directly to the forehead. That’s what makes it different. We wanted for people to remember it. It’s the only product that you apply directly to the forehead.” He kept saying that. This is the ad you get when Rain Man is your VP of marketing.
What about the peculiar anti-style of the commercial? The ad--which cost “almost nothing,” said Charron--is actually an edited version of an earlier advertisement, recycling the same footage of the head-rubbing woman. At the request of the Better Business Bureau, HeadOn removed claims that the product provides relief from headaches, migraines and headache pain with sleeplessness.
Thus expunged of any claim of efficacy or benefit, what remains is, I think, unique in advertising: a commercial that says nothing about the product except how to use it. And this is where it gets weird. Because of its strange and evocative emptiness, the “apply directly” sound bite is catching on. There’s now a web site that has laid it down behind a hip-hop dance mix. Another has converted it into a ring tone. How soon before we see T-shirts emblazoned with the phrase, above a picture of a frosty mug of beer? It’s a tribute to pop’s alchemical power that the most uncool commercial in the history of TV has somehow been rendered, well, cool.
Meanwhile, Charron and his company are working on the next round of HeadOn commercials. If you want me, I’ll be in the bell tower.