Satire, sometimes called 'the revenge of the powerless', has been around since ancient Rome.
What’s new today is that everyone has a movie camera in their hands and, if they want to expose injustice, they can make a film about it, and reach millions of people via the internet. And because of the lower production values seen in online advertising, these ‘fake’ or parody ads have become increasingly hard to tell apart from the real thing.
These ‘fake’ or parody ads have become increasingly hard to tell apart from the real thing.
Historically, that wasn’t the case. It took a big film crew to make an ad. Parodies did exist, but they were only made by well-funded TV shows – sometimes with great success.
In the US, Saturday Night Live’s commercial parodies have featured fantastic actors such as Amy Poehler, Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig advertising products such as Gangsta Bitch Barbie and Chewable Pampers. YouTube compilations of their parodies get up to ten million views.
In the UK, spoof ads were a feature in the comedy sketch shows of Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders, Rowan Atkinson and the Not The Nine O’Clock News team, and more recently David Mitchell and Robert Webb, whose hilarious parody of an over-the-top Sky Sports football ad has been watched over three million times.
Parody ads without big budgets began in print. A magazine called Adbusters was founded in Vancouver in 1989, as “a global collective of poets, punks and philosophers implementing radical design and media strategies to shake up complacent consumerist culture”, with contributors including typographer Jonathan Barnbrook, and thinkers David Graeber and Slavoj Zizek. At its peak in the late 2000s the magazine had a circulation of 120,000 and still seems as relevant as ever.
The first time a spoof ad was widely mistaken for a real one was the notorious case of a spec commercial shot for Volkswagen in 2005.
What was different about Adbusters was they weren’t doing it for comedy - they had a conscience. Early work in what came to be known as ‘culture jamming’ included critiques of consumerism, fast food, alcohol advertising, and capitalism itself. The first time a spoof ad was widely mistaken for a real one was the notorious case of a spec commercial shot for Volkswagen in 2005.
In the film, a Middle Eastern man parks outside a busy London café and pushes a button to detonate his bomb. However, the explosion fails to cause any casualties because the blast is contained within the ‘Small but tough’ Polo. Volkswagen and their agency DDB were both horrified and (truthfully) denied any connection to the film. But the public largely believed it was official, and still does, judging from YouTube comments such as “Fantastic ad by Volkswagen”, and “Back when marketing departments were allowed to have a sense of humor”.
Soon, as production costs decreased, parody ad films exploded in popularity. Most were still humorous – the parody form is inherently comedic. Notable examples included this 2013 parody of Dove’s Real Beauty Sketches by creative production company Portal A. In the original,
a forensic sketch artist compared a woman's description of herself to a stranger's in order to prove that women are their own worst critics when it comes to their looks. In the parody, it was men being shown sketches of their balls.
In recent years, as the environmental crisis has escalated, parody ads have become serious again.
Real brands were getting in on the act too, such as IKEA’s wonderful piss-take of Apple’s advertising in their ‘bookbook’ ad of 2014, which sold the IKEA catalogue as if it were some revolutionary new product that “needs no cables… and the battery life is eternal". But, in recent years, as the environmental crisis has escalated, parody ads have become serious again, and the satire turned up to a whole new level.
Activists working in the culture-jamming tradition are defacing billboards and producing their own posters and videos, sometimes with a general anti-capitalist theme, but most often to argue for action on climate change. At the forefront is a movement known as Brandalism. The group first came to attention after 28 artists installed satirical parodies of corporate ads over billboards throughout the UK, during the 2012 Olympics in. Three years later, they hit 600 bus stops in Paris during the 2015 UN Climate Change Conference.
In 2020, Brandalism targeted HSBC with 250 billboards across 10 British cities, accusing the bank of 'climate colonialism' and protesting against its investment in fossil fuels and the greenwashing of its advertising. Right now in Australia, The Juice Media are ripping into international environmental issues, attracting millions of global views with their own hard-hitting spoof PSAs, a brand of political satire which the Aussies can do so well.
A crucial aspect of parody ads is that they must fool the viewer, at least initially, into believing they are real. But now that parody ads have become so widespread, and are so professionally produced, it is possible we will reach a point where people can’t tell the difference between real and fake advertising.
The line is being deliberately blurred.
As things literally heat up around the world, in September this year, The Big Short director Adam McKay released this brutal attack ad, aimed at Chevron, by tweeting the words “Has anyone seen this Chevron commercial?”. Part of the ad’s power is that before the take-down begins, the spot expertly lulls us into thinking it’s a real Chevron commercial, with its imagery of new-born babies and waterfalls, and a voiceover that begins; “We at Chevron believe that nothing is more precious than life.”
It’s far better than any ad Chevron has ever made. Because it contains an ingredient that makes any ad effective: The truth.
But the reality is, it’s far better than any ad Chevron has ever made. And far more important. Because it contains an ingredient that makes any ad effective, but which you’ll never see in a film actually produced for a fossil fuel company*: The truth.
Parody ads have become more real than the real ads, and as the ecosystem continues to destabilise, we can expect the current flood of parodies to become a tsunami.