Branding Beat - Cut Through the Noise

The 9 Most Eyeroll-worthy Condescending Ads of ALL TIME

It’s fairly standard marketing practice to point out a customer’s need and show how your product or service can fill that need. But sometimes a marketing campaign backfires … and it shifts from pointing out a customer’s needs to pointing out a customer’s flaws. At that point, you’re talking down to your customers and making them feel inferior.

What follows are nine commercials (some of which have since been pulled due to complaints) that, for one reason or another, either condescend or outright insult their target markets.

1. He Went to Jared’s… and I hate you.

You love your wife. And maybe it’s an anniversary or her birthday or just a day when you decide to remind her how special she is to you.

OR

You’re cheap and clueless. Your wife sees all of her friends wearing beautiful jewelry and she wonders why she married such an insensitive jerk. She’s going to throw a drink in your face at some party and you’ll totally deserve it. Maybe she’ll even divorce you because she needs expensive jewelry to prove that you love her. You married a shallow woman who only cares about the things you can buy for her. But it’s not your fault, because ALL WOMEN are this way, since they do nothing but compare jewelry when they get together at parties.

It’s hard to say whether these ads are more patronizing towards the jewelry-obsessed women or the clueless men who marry them. But the fact is that these ads have been popular for years, even though they pretty much tell any man who isn’t already shopping at their stores that his wife resents him.

2. Verizon… is useless to stupid dads like you.

Your children use the Internet for a lot more than playing games. The Internet has replaced the local library, encyclopedia set, and pretty much every other research source. So you want to make sure that you provide your family with the fastest and most reliable Internet connection.

OR

We know that you’re far too stupid to understand how websites work. And the concept of an online encyclopedia is basically a Star Trek level of amazing to you. Your kid knows you’re too stupid to understand modern technology. Your wife knows you’re too stupid to understand modern technology. So just shut up and walk the dog.

Verizon actually pulled this commercial after multiple complaints of how it portrayed fathers as being stupid. Of course, if you think only men are portrayed as incompetent in regards to computers… hoo boy, take a look at this one:

3. Samsung… wants to re-assure us that their new drive is so easy that even a woman can use it.

Three people are sitting in a restaurant at lunchtime, each talking about the problems that come with slow computer speed and how it affects their respective businesses. They’re looking for a new drive that is easy to install and use, but also gets work done faster.

OR

A male student, a male executive, and a housewife each talk about their problems with slow computer speeds. The men clearly articulate their needs, while the woman seems baffled and a little frightened by the computer sitting in her kitchen. What do the men use computers for? Sharing files with co-workers, running multiple programs at the office, and gaming. What does the woman use her computer for? Sharing pictures of her kids when she’s not “doing chores.”

The most condescending part of the commercial? When each of them is handed the Samsung 840 EVO Series Solid State Drive. The men are excited. The woman stares at it like an alien device and asks, “What?” She appears to have no idea what she’s holding. When asked to install it, the two men respond simply, “Okay,” while the woman responds, “I don’t know how to.” And when she does install it, she’s amazed that even someone of her limited intelligence can figure it out. “I feel like an expert.”

It’s amazing to think that anyone ever thought this would be an effective way to market their product to any woman. Leaving aside the stereotypic gender roles, implying that housewives are technologically ignorant, if not outright technophobic, is both outdated and a sure way to alienate a key market you’re trying to reach.

4. Fed Ex… knows that educated people are stupid.

We see several office workers struggling to set up a shipping order. They’re smart people, but the online forms are so needlessly complicated that it takes forever. One mistake forces them to re-type everything all over again. Eventually, they discover Fed Ex, with its easy-to-use system that lets them get entire rooms full of boxes shipped out quickly.

OR

A new employee is asked to take over the shipping and he’s reluctant to do it. Not because it’s a new task and he’s unsure if he can handle it, but because he has “an MBA” and feels the work is beneath him. His supervisor responds that, since he has an MBA, she’ll have to walk him through it.

Did you get the joke? People with MBAs are arrogant, but they’re also stupid and don’t understand anything important. They just have all those book smarts that are useless in the real world of office work. I’m sure a lot of people laughed when they saw that ad. It’s a good thing that no one with a business degree ever has to make the decision of which shipping service to use.

Oh, wait.

While professional experience provides its own unique skill set, implying that having an MBA somehow makes you dumber than NOT having an MBA just seems like a baffling marketing strategy.

5. Mac… thinks you’re a nerd, but won’t tell you to your face.

A human version of a Mac computer approaches various individuals, young, old, male, female, in various lines of work, and asks what they need their computers to do. Whether it’s running office software, making movies, managing a website, or just playing games, the Mac is the best choice for the job.

OR

OK, this is a tricky one. We’re all familiar with the “I’m a Mac and I’m a PC” ads. Justin Long plays the anthropomorphized version of a Mac: young, laid-back, “cool.” And John Hodgman plays the anthropomorphized PC: middle-aged, uptight, “square.” Of course, the commercials are for Mac computers, showing how they’re better at “life stuff” like making movies and designing websites. While PCs are for spreadsheets and all the boring “office stuff.” I’m sure many people don’t find it condescending at all …

Unless they happen to look more like John Hodgman than Justin Long. Curiously, Long is only seven years younger than Hodgman, so the portrayal of Hodgman as being old, set in his ways, and basically resentful of the young upstart is mostly in his performance. And it is a great performance because I always feel bad for the PC. It’s a Mac ad and I know it’s always going to be a Mac ad, but I keep hoping that, just this once, PC shows up that smirking Mac. Not the best emotion to engender in your target market.

6. Apple… hires a genius to help its stupid customers.

There are a lot of sleazy sales people out there who are trying to sell you an inferior product and calling it a Mac. Fortunately, you know the right questions to ask so that you’re sure you’re getting a Mac and not “basically a Mac.” Perhaps a Mac genius even appears to show up the unethical sales person who was trying to sell you a bad product.

OR

You bought a computer that isn’t really a Mac. You’re feeling pretty good about yourself until the Mac genius points out that you’re gullible and stupid. He doesn’t help you out of this predicament or even seem to feel particularly bad that his brand has been misrepresented by an inferior product. He just points out your mistake and then goes on with his life.

Now, I don’t want it to look like I’m picking on Apple specifically. But there’s no reason for the company to insult my intelligence if I don’t already own one of their computers.

Also, they chose a know-it-all IT guy as the spokesperson for this series of ads. Ask pretty much any non-IT worker to name his or her least-favorite co-worker, and the know-it-all IT guy will probably be mentioned. Over the last decade or so, we’re seeing less of this smug attitude as more people gain the IT skill set and employers have the option of choosing between the IT expert with interpersonal skills and the IT expert without interpersonal skills. (Hint: the one WITH interpersonal skills gets the job.)

Carfax has a similar set-up in its ads with a talking fox that knows everything about the used car you’re about to buy … except that the fox is standing next to you. Check out the ad and see if you can spot the tonal difference. This is an ad that says, “We’re in this together, buddy. I got your back.” As opposed to, “You paid for THAT thing? Sorry, stupid, you’re on your own.”

7. Gatorade… just told you not to buy Gatorade.

Maybe you’re a professional athlete. Maybe you’re out of shape and just starting a gym membership. Maybe you’re planning to participate in a 5K marathon for your favorite charity. Whatever your reason for getting some exercise, you want to do it responsibly and replenish the nutrients that you’ll be sweating out. So drink Gatorade.

OR

You’re out of shape, deserving derision if you even try to buy our product. And your favorite football player will humiliate you if you object to this degrading treatment.

It’s a little unbelievable that Gatorade would green-light a series of ads where convenience store clerks refuse to sell Gatorade to people who don’t exercise enough. The first thing I thought was, “He’s probably heading to the gym and wants to have his power drink ready for after he’s finished.” The same way we tend to buy most products BEFORE we need them.

My second thought, of course, was, “It’s none of your business WHY he wants to buy that Gatorade, jerk! And to hell with you, random celebrity athlete, for humiliating him in public!”

Obviously, this doesn’t make me want to buy a Gatorade.

8. Target… thinks you sound stupid.

Black Friday can be a nightmare. Come to Target and we’ll do everything we can to help you buy everything you need at the lowest price, with a minimum of stress.

OR

Heh heh, hold on. You want to hear something really funny? This is you. This is what you sound like to us. I know. Annoying, isn’t it. You are so annoying and vapid. Now come shop at our store.

It’s hard to say who was the intended audience for this ad. But it looks like it’s the two friends texting each other … whom the Target spokespeople are relentlessly mocking.

9. Cadillac… if you can’t afford one, it’s because you’re lazy… and un-American.

Cadillac produces the finest automobile on the market. If you can buy the best… why wouldn’t you?

OR

French people are lazy. America is the best country in the world. You’re rich because you’re an American and Americans just work harder.

This one-minute commercial essentially insults everyone who can’t afford a Cadillac by implying they’re just too lazy to work for it. It also implies only Americans are worthy of owning Cadillac automobiles. And it would all work a lot better if these commercials weren’t readily available on the Internet, meaning that anyone in the world (including the French) can view them. It’s just difficult to imagine any company trying to tap into an international market with this sort of commercial on the air.

And in case you’re wondering about the fallout from this sort of smug “members only” style of commercial, here’s the Ford response ad. That’s right, the Cadillac commercial was so widely despised that it launched an ad campaign for a rival company.

Does It Matter?

I’ve purposefully left off political ads, since I don’t want to denigrate anyone’s party affiliation. But I will say that, as far as fear-mongering and appealing to humanity’s lowest instincts goes, political advertisers set the bar so low that you essentially have to start digging if you want to go any lower (and that’s not the only reason you might want a shovel when reviewing those “vote for me OR YOU’LL DIE” ads).

Of course, several of these commercials (like the “I’m a Mac and I’m a PC” ads) actually launched multi-year campaigns, meaning that many customers either didn’t see these ads as condescending or simply didn’t care. Because many of us make our purchasing decisions based on something other than the commercials.

But if you saw one of these commercials with no prior knowledge of the products, if these commercials were your first exposure to these brands, how likely would you be to give them a try? After watching computer commercials that insult your intelligence, how much help do you think you’d get when you called that system’s support hotline? After watching commercials that insult your national heritage, will you be more or less likely to invest in a car manufactured in your own country? And are you more likely to buy your wife or girlfriend jewelry when a commercial tells you that she’ll dump you if you don’t?

While it’s true that we often make changes in our lives after recognizing a deficiency of some sort in ourselves; it’s also true that we become very defensive when others point out those same deficiencies. As long as potential customers are approached as outsiders rather than allies, these sorts of commercials will continue to be made and will continue to elicit (sometimes disastrous) backlash.

Or simply: Don’t insult the people while asking for their money.

Which of these commercials did you feel was the most condescending? Any that you would add to the list?

expand your brand



Michael Penkas

Michael is still amazed that he can get paid to complain about pop culture, since he'd spent years doing it for free. In the past, he's worked as a librarian, a typesetter, and an editor. His interests include films and comics from the '70s and '80s. He's also written numerous ghost stories and a mystery novel (which you should read). You can connect with him on Google+.

Comments

  1. Chase

    Great article! I personally find this type of advertising entertaining. When I can relate or laugh at some form of advertising I typically remember it better. Which at the end of the day is the exact point of advertising. I agree that I am sure there is a group of people that are turned off by these, and I would agree that much of this is true. But for the Mac vs PC Commercials they launched a whole new line of business for Mac and I am sure that their ROI on those is through the roof, thus them doing them for so long. They clearly worked well since from the start of them in May of 2006 Apple is now worth 5.3x more. My guess would be that if this approach is done correctly it can be worth it. But you are rolling the dice with your companies future!

  2. Erik

    This was a very interesting article. Some of these were so obviously offensive while others were almost subtle about it. The Samsung commercial was especially obvious. I almost thought it was fake, like an SNL skit or something. The Mac vs. PC commercials were a bit funny and almost sarcastic, but I can see how the underlying message is making anyone who doesn’t use a Mac seem boring. It doesn’t help that they dressed the PC guy like a businessman from the 80’s!

    It’s apparent that there is a fine line between poking fun in an intelligent manor to your customers and just making them feel stupid. It’s amazing that any brand would want to take an approach that questions intelligence. If you’re going to have fun with it, then just have fun. Don’t get lost in who’s better. Brand confidence comes off better in my mind when you can say this is who we are, this is what we do, and we think you’re gonna love it. Now check this out! Thanks for the insight, Michael. I’ll be looking at commercials in a different light from now on.

  3. alan

    These would make pretty bad first impressions of brands if I was unfamiliar with them. I think the Gatorade ad is the most ridiculous on this list because it’s implying that most people aren’t good enough for their product!

  4. Jon Cacioppo

    Great Article – I laughed more than a few times at how silly some of these ads can be. I often have a “what were they thinking” moment when you watch some of them.
    I have particular issue with a Verizon ad from a bunch of years ago where it showed a mom texting her skateboarding son saying she was making Paella, and the kid responded back with “I don’t know what that is, and I am not eating it” and the mom rewarded him with ordering pizza online. I am a Verizon customer, but the fact that they would have such a pushover mom in their commercial drove me nuts.
    So I am still not sure on the “does it matter” but it is something that I hope more thought goes into now so that companies are not wasting their money – especially when GoDaddy had to recently pull an ad they made for the super bowl (be it planned controversy or not).

  5. leo

    Welcome Michael. I have to say this is a great way to start off at QLP. Watching each of these videos has taken me on a completely different journey than the first time had seen some on television. Keeping in mind your explanation of each (perhaps I should have read your summary after I watched the video as intended) it shed a different light on the issues in each. The one video that I was particularly “moved” by was the Samsung 840 EVO Series Solid State Drive commercial. This had the makings to make every single woman in America, no better yet, the world, pissed. I could not believe how they portrayed her as a complete idiot with absolutely no knowledge of how anything works on a computer. I know my wife (stay at home mother) can work her way around any electronic device. She would be completely insulted by this commercial. Samsung had made a long lasting impression on me. And unfortunately, it was not a good one.
    Back in October (2014) I did hear of a Rick Scott (Republican) campaign add that was a spoof on “Say Yes To The Dress”. Watching this add a few times, you realize that they his campaign truly believed this was the best way to reach his female voters. Women like facts just like men do (I spoke to my wife about this). It seemed that they really dumbed down female voters. I don’t believe too many people were fans of this one 🙁 He did however win that race! He must have had some other cards up his sleeve because I’m sure no one like this trick!

  6. Anthony

    Great post my friend!! I did not get too offended with most of these because it felt like the company was not trying to directly insult customers but hoping someone can relate in a particular way. But you can tell if a company is being ignorant and obnoxious through their advertising campaigns. Take the Samsung and the Cadillac ones for instance:

    The Samsung one pretty much said that women aren’t tech savvy and was SUPER obvious what they were trying to portray. Yeah, we get that your SSD is so amazing but we can all understand it no matter what gender you are.

    The Cadillac one is practically saying if you don’t work hard or if you aren’t born into a family of hard working people that you can’t even afford this car so why try? I get it but maybe take a step back and think about what the general public is going to think about your company.

    To be completely honest, I purchase a few things based off how I feel about their advertisements. Old Spice makes me feel like I have the same personality and humor as the people on and off the camera and makes me want to support them so they can keep entertaining me. Plus, it smells awesome so they’re doing their job right! Thank you Michael for the informative post that got me thinking into the eyes of advertising! Again, awesome post!!

  7. Kat D.

    What an interesting post!!! I had NO idea what the angle on some of these commercials would be if they hadn’t been pointed out. The Gatorade commercial is the WORST. WOW – the last time I checked companies were in business to MAKE money, not turn customers away. This commercial is just ridiculous!

    And the Samsung commercial, REALLY?! Ok, I’m a female, and I openly admit I’m not too computer savvy but I’m sure they are JUST AS MANY MEN out there that would say the same thing!! How dare they imply women are inferior to men. This day and age, really? C’mon now.

    The Target commercial — very interesting. Again, companies are in the business to make money, so why would they poke fun at ANY customers of theirs?

    Such a great post, well worth the read!!

  8. Serenity

    Is that Samsung commercial for real!? I couldn’t even finish it. I had never seen it before today, but I can tell you how offended I would have been. The other commercial that really irked me was the Cadillac commercial.

    A lot of these types of commercials really pry on a terrible American ideal. I am not saying people shouldn’t work hard to earn the good things in life, but that last line where he says something along the lines of that’s why I didn’t take a vacation. Well the real people in this kind of scenario behind the scene he probably has children that he never sees, an unfulfilling marriage and a whole other grab bag of psychological complexes to follow.

    It’s this kind of materialistic guilt that companies pray on for advertising and it realty makes me angry when I see this kind of stuff. This is a side of neuro-marketing that I cannot get on board with. The same can be said for things like the Jared commercial also. This concept that if you don’t get jewelry or slave trade diamonds then your life or relationship to your significant other is meaningless. It may be just advertising but after decades of this kind of mentality constantly bombarding our thought process it almost becomes a subliminal tone in all of lives.

    Advertising can very much degrade a culture. I don’t respect it in the least bit! this was a great post though! Awesome food for thought! Great job!

  9. Erin

    These are great! Jared commercials to this day I think still stay true to this theme…show the woman in your life how much you love her by buying her jewelry, and make all other women jealous. Super cheesy but I guarantee we all know their famous tagline and can sing it on key! Empire Carpet anyone?? It’s a dog-eat-dog branded world with every company fighting for consumer attention. Gone are the days were we actually have to watch commercials, so ads need to get a little edgy to make them stand out or cause a stir. Enter the Samsung and Verizon ads – they REALLY went out of their way to drive home the stupidity points! These companies have too much money to be wasting it on air time with these duds, I’m betting whoever came up with these scripts were fired.

    I loved the Mac vs. PC commercials and still do. They geared the ads to the stereotype of their target market and I think they nailed it! Clearly profits for Mac didn’t suffer if any offense was taken by the clever series of commercials. And if any offense WAS taken it was most likely by a PC lover so it wouldn’t matter anyway!

    Great article, I’ve always been a fan of TV advertising and think that it takes seeing lots of bad commercials to appreciate a good one!

  10. lee

    The one that drove me completely nuts from a bunch of years ago was Nescafe. If Nescafe can please the whole wide world, we can sure please you. Why not *ust start the commercial with “yo, schmucks…”

  11. Jay Hoffman

    Michael, this is great! You definitely knocked this one out of the park.

    The Jared commercials are consistently annoying. However, I think their strategy has most likely worked wonders over the years seeing as how you see more and more of their commercials as time goes on. I don’t think they’re inaccurate when it comes to their messaging, which is “let’s face it, fellas, you don’t know what the hell you’re looking for, so you might as well get this thing that everyone else is getting”. At the same time, they aren’t doing the wives/girlfriends of those guys any favors by helping them get the exact same piece of jewelery that every other clueless guy got their significant other. But it’s the thought that counts, right?!?

    The Samsung one is baffling. My office mate and I debated on whether or not it was real. Apparently their creative team is comprised of sexist men who graduated from the Don Draper school of advertising. If I was female and saw that, I wouldn’t ever even consider buying anything of theirs. They did nothing but a great job of alienating 50% of their customer base with that commercial.

    The Gatorade one was equally puzzling. I’m pretty sure they’re aware of the fact that a large majority of their clients aren’t serious athletes, let alone people who aren’t working out every day at home or at the gym. If they REALLY wanted to nail this one, they’d do a similar commercial where instead of the guy/demographic they insulted, they’d replace him with… I don’t know, construction workers? Basically anyone who works outside in the summer who needs to keep a lot of liquids in them to make sure they aren’t dehydrated. Yes, Gatorade, we know it was designed for athletes. It’s also right next to the Coke section in every gas station in the world.

    The Cadillac one is just wrong. One of the most epic failures I’ve seen recently and I’m a nerd for this stuff. I don’t think anyone is under the impression that the average blue collar loser (according to this commercial) can go buy a new Cadillac whenever they want. So why not keep it classy? Isn’t Cadillac a classy brand? Well, keep it that way.

    This article further proves what I’ve known all along. There are a ton of creative directors at advertising firms or in-house advertising departments who are completely out of touch and/or total idiots. But hey, we can’t all be the genius behind the Empire Carpet or Victory Auto Wreckers commercials, AMIRITE?!?!?!?!

  12. Jim

    I can understand a marketing company writing a stupid, annoying commercial. What I can’t understand is why so many companies would want their products and services presented in such asinine ways. I also find it interesting how many commercials never even talk about the product they’re trying to sell. Instead it’s usually just people making fools of themselves on screen. If you can’t tell me about it that doesn’t instill much confidence in me to want to buy it.

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