The Flash of Neon

Robin Wilde
8 min readJan 18, 2022

I’m firmly of the view that if you want to get to experience a place, even when on holiday, it’s worth placing yourself for a short while in the role not of visitor but of a resident. Living your normal life but in a place that’s unfamiliar is a good way to spot little details which go unnoticed by both tourists and locals — the former because they’re too small, and the latter because they’re too familiar.

The most recent example that’s repeatedly drawn my eye and ire has been American advertising. Visitors to the States will doubtless have noticed the vast quantity of ad breaks — somewhere around 30% of total airtime — on TV, but as I don’t watch broadcast TV, that’s less of a problem.

What’s striking to me isn’t the quantity but the surprisingly poor quality. This is a country that’s built an undeniably impressive economic engine out of its high consumer spending, love of convenience and self-expression via commercial means. So why, as someone completely unsteeped in the culture, do I find it all so utterly unconvincing?

The first and most obvious problem is the unsubtlety. I freely admit I was never the most likely prospect to sign up for GOOGLE FI! A PHONE PLAN BY GOOGLE! in any case, but the fact that GOOGLE FI! A PHONE PLAN BY GOOGLE! insists on bellowing at me every time I watch a YouTube video in case I become 0.01% more tempted to sign up for GOOGLE FI! A PHONE PLAN BY GOOGLE! in fact makes me dead set against buying any product from the world’s monopoly search engine ever again.

I’m not demanding that every pre-roll ad be the Ferrero Rocher Ambassador scene, but some level of taking the customer as worthy of respect wouldn’t go amiss.

This tendency to loudly bellow might inspire the obvious joke that it’s just catering to loud Americans, but it doesn’t reflect my experience of the treacherous colonials, really. If anything, the Americans I’ve met have a tendency to be almost overly earnest and careful to show their understanding of your position in a conversation.

This earnestness feeds into another challenge of American advertising which is a total lack of self-awareness. Exhibit A was encountered just last night when I was adding to my freezer a box of well-known frozen ice pole treats and noted an ad on the back for two of the company’s other products in the same family, both of whose names manage to instantly repel any desire to purchase what I’m sure are perfectly tasty treats: Fudgesicles and Creamsicles.

I don’t mean to single out the good people at Popsicle for their whole marketing approach — since Popsicle is obviously catchy enough to have become the ubiquitous term for ice lollies in general, and is at least an improvement on creator Frank Epperson’s original name of “Epsicles” — but both fudge- and cream- are prefixes one has to use very carefully to avoid becoming entendre-prone, and that is an art the Americans don’t seem to have mastered.

Joining them in the double-entendre corner is local cookie brand Cougar Mountain, whose jokes also write themselves.

Product names easily mocked are nothing new or particularly American, of course — the example which springs most readily to mind is Golden Gaytime, an Australian ice-cream-on-a-stick dessert marketed under the slogan “it’s hard to have a Gaytime on your own”.

At face value, this appears to be the same thing, but the difference is that there’s no way an Australian marketing team isn’t aware of the entendre and deliberately keeping it long after the lexical shift made that slogan funny for the sake of generating viral marketing potential. The same can be said for classic British pudding Spotted Dick, tins of which also do the rounds on Twitter occasionally.

I can honestly believe that the team behind Cougar Mountain either don’t know, or at least think the public don’t know, about the several permutations of joke their product can provide.

They’re just two examples of marketing’s lack of self-awareness, but any visit to a supermarket will alert you to more.

For example, the common product Miracle Whip, which to the untrained ear should be, nay, can only be some sort of artificial whipped dairy dessert, a bit like Angel Delight.

What is it actually? A sort of emulsified egg product developed as a cheap alternative to mayonnaise during the Depression and somehow still a going concern. Its marketing efforts, according to Wikipedia, have included paid product placement in the music video for Lady Gaga’s Telephone, which I can only imagine shifted it by the vatful.

Stop callin’, stop callin’
I don’t wanna think any more

I suppose someone from the land of mushy peas perhaps shouldn’t throw stones on this score, but I have long thought that if a product’s name can’t actively sell it to customers, it should at least give a reasonably accurate description of what the product is, and not make it seem repellent. Speaking of both misleading and repellent, allow me to introduce the delightful Hamburger Helper:

They should use this on anti-binge drinking ads.

There’s charmingly naïve, America, and then there is this. While I’m conscious that in a strictly literal sense hamburger refers to the meat in any form and not to the burger patty, the latter definition is definitely what most of the uninformed would think they were about to be served if offered hamburger for dinner. Strange name aside, the David Cronenberg body horror of the serving suggestion and the gormless grin of the disembodied hand turn this from “confusing” to *guttural noise of flight reflex*.

Which brings us on neatly to the horror show that is the boxed ready meal. The microwave meal is one of the more successful American exports and when they’re done well they can be a fairly tasty and nutritionally inoffensive way to fill a hole if you’re in a hurry or are incompetent in the kitchen. And then you visit the frozen food aisle of an American supermarket and see what lurks beneath:

‘Why is this hyphenated?’ — the last question that should be on your mind.
Nothing brings you confidence in your dinner like the vague descriptor “meat”.
Extra-watery, just how I like my chicken.

I understand intellectually that the target audience of these things — single men with no cooking skills — don’t in general care about the aesthetics of the box photo, but surely there’s some competitive pressure within the industry? If just one of those manufacturers made their meals look the least bit appealing, maybe they could gain enough relative advantage to steamroll the competition! And yet, here we are.

h̷̞̹̝̝̎͑͘e̷̢͔͕͚̿ ̴̲̊̊͌͗ś̸̨̼̙̭͒̊ẻ̷̼͚̳̔̂͜ę̵̢̺͗s̷̩̽̐͂͠ ̶̖̞̑͌̋̔ͅy̸̢̠̩͗̎͗͜ỏ̷͔̆͐̆u̵̻͉͇͂̔͝ ̵̠̥̙̎̈́́͝w̴̜̃͐̕ḣ̵̼e̸̢̝͙̍͘n̶̼̐ ̵̱̥̌̈́̾̚y̴̲̯̮͎̌̐͐ô̴̹͝u̴̙̫͖̩̔͑’̷͙̘̜̀̾r̷͉̜̹̤̐̏͗ë̵̗́̓ ̶̘͘s̴̢̠̑̊̍l̷̜̩̻̀̚͜e̵̛̟̦̤͓e̷̡̢̝͖͊̒͗p̶̖̑ĭ̸̛͚̐̚n̴̗̄̊̈́͜͝ğ̸̛̬̺͑̋

Last, we have the bewildering product mascot. This does seem to be a peculiar proclivity of American advertisers, from the fictional Betty Crocker through to the nightmarish Jack-in-the-Box fast food chain’s murder clown.

Most perplexing to me has been Red Baron brand frozen pizzas. I’m not sure what relationship exists between the higher end of the frozen Italian-American food market and a long-deceased Richthofen, and apparently the manufacturer deny there’s any link (and admittedly the mascot doesn’t bear any resemblance to old Manfred). Crucially though, while a First World War German ace might make me stop and look twice in the supermarket, wondering when someone will produce Pol Pot’s Chicken Tikka Masala or Jean-Bedel Bokassa’s cream of tomato soup, it has not yet led to me actually buying any of the Baron’s pizzas.

As taken from real corpses at Verdun!

What troubles me about all these gripes is that clearly it’s all just about working. Someone in Google HQ will have a big spreadsheet showing a statistically growing Google Fi subscriber base the more they hammer the captive YouTube audience. Someone at Stouffer’s will have seen nice photos of their food as taken by the no doubt competent and highly trained photographer and rejected it because it was 0.3% less appealing at stores. Someone at Cougar Mountain will have heard all the potential jokes.

This leads me to some troubling potential conclusions as someone who lives in America and essentially does a marketing-adjacent job.

The first is that Americans are just dumb and don’t know any better. This is what a lot of Europeans would like to believe, but it’s not really true. Americans seem to be as well educated and discerning as everyone else, if a little less well-travelled on account of their geography.

The second is that marketing makes no difference whatsoever, so manufacturers might as well put out whatever they like. That’s probably got a grain of truth, and I think part of the answer might be that oversaturation of advertising has just led to diminishing returns all round, leading to lower budgets per ad, with a resultant hit to quality. Still, there is clearly a value to good advertising — otherwise there wouldn’t be so much money in it.

I think the closest thing to a definitive answer is the same one as to why America hasn’t found a definitive congressional majority for sorting out its healthcare, or why its devolved governance is so Byzantine, or why it hasn’t built high speed rail (mostly).

It’s now a complex enough society that path dependence has set in, and people like things the way they are, even if they could objectively be done better. People might notice the ads getting better if they were changed, but they’d notice that a change had taken place, and that would worry them.

All I can do until someone comes along with a magic wand to generate a simultaneous desire among 325 million people for a new way of selling things is to ride it out, continuing to not subject myself to six ad breaks an hour and never, ever signing up for Google Fi.

Robin Wilde

Freelance writer and graphic designer. Once worked in politics.