Some of the best and most well-regarded commercials are unorthodox.
In 1984, the world was introduced to the Macintosh computer by a commercial featuring a nameless heroine hurling a hammer into the face of a Big Brother-like figure. Filmed by cinematic powerhouse Ridley Scott, the commercial was initially met with unanimous hatred by the Apple board of directors. The commercial, dubbed “1984,” went on to be inducted into the Clio Awards’ Hall of Fame and was hailed by Advertising Age as the greatest commercial ever made.
In a time when television advertising was largely dominated by a bland sequence of gratuitous product shots and faux testimonials, Steve Jobs practiced what he preached: he thought different. He lied all the way to Super Bowl placement and laughed all the way to the bank. He realized that the value of tapping into consumer emotion — no matter how brief — was more efficient than bombarding them with crazy little things as pedestrian as facts.
Only recently has there been a resurgence in non-traditional advertising. Modern viewers are inundated with the bizarre, the surreal and an endless series of non sequiturs that are barely relevant to the products being promoted. However, in the not-so-distant past, commercials conformed to a fairly rigid structure. Most commercials focused on highlighting positive user experiences, showcasing the product and showing its real-world applications.
This list goes out to the trailblazers. It is dedicated to those early ad men who looked at the item on offer and made the conscious decision to sell it in novel and unexpected ways. And so, from an intergalactic crescent who may or may not be a mafia hit man to an oversized eggbeast extolling the cracking of eggs in an undiscovered language, here’s a list of eleven of the creepiest commercials ever to air.
11 McDonald’s Mac Tonight
One of the lesser known denizens of McDonaldland, Mac Tonight was a sort of Man in the Moon figure dressed like a 1950s street tough. Mac Tonight piloted his intergalactic piano through Earth’s galaxy in the 1980s, singing a jazzed up variation of Bobby Darin’s “Mack the Knife.” As quickly as he arrived, Mac was jettisoned out of our solar system in 1986. McDonald’s has since explored other — less terrifying — means to lure midnight snackers than by appropriating a song that is ostensibly about a serial-killing mob enforcer.
10 Campbell’s Nightmarish Alien
Another entry from 1986, this Campbell’s Soup commercial looked to capitalize on kids’ love of all things alien. Unfortunately, the ad featured an alien that lacked the sympathetic form of E.T. The Campbell’s alien, instead, assumed a form gifted with a face so featureless — so void of emotion — that it more closely resembled the death masks of the ancient Romans and spoke in a cadence and phraseology that could have been ripped straight out of Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake.
9 Woolite & Rob Zombie Torture Knitwear
A muddy, masked man drags a sutured bag through a blighted field. The crank of a medieval rack is turned and a vibrant pink sweater is stretched to its breaking point. When you hire Rob Zombie to direct a commercial, you should pretty much assume it’ll only be suitable for prime time. Nevertheless, Woolite green-lighted Zombie’s vision and — for better or worse — taught us all a thing or two about torturing cardigans.
8 Xbox Teaches Life and Death
Physics aside, this classic Xbox commercial offers a visually intriguing play on man’s worst fear. From its first blood-curdling scream, it launches the viewer on a brief philosophical journey that questions the nature of existence and the very essence of life itself. Through the atmospheric travels of our unnamed protagonist, we begin to ask ourselves, “Are we really making the best use of our brief time on this Earth?”
And then it slams a screaming, elderly man into a black marble sarcophagus so hard that no trace of his existence remains.
7 A Clockwork Lemon
At some point, someone in Sprite’s advertising cadre took a look at A Clockwork Orange’s Ludovico technique and thought, “Let’s do this. To everyone. Let’s put this on national television.” The result is a schizophrenic jumble of sounds and images so jarring that viewers were compelled to drink a two-liter of refreshing Sprite brand cola, manufactured by the benevolent Coca-Cola Company.
6 Quiznos' Deviant Toaster
This commercial effectively answers the all-too-common question, “What would happen if KITT from Knight Rider went to prison and was rehabilitated as an electric conveyor toaster oven?” The answer is a self-aware, paraphiliac, electric conveyor toaster oven. Speaking in a calculated baritone the malevolent oven featured in Quiznos' “Toasty Torpedo” commercial communicated via thinly veiled sexual puns and, at one point, encouraged his operator to, “put it in him.”
5 Levi’s 501 Digs Up Grotesqueries
Old taillights gleam across a lonely desert as Johnny Mathis belts out his classic “Chances Are.” The first departure from normality in this Levi’s 501 commercial comes when we see a man in flannel digging a grave-sized hole. He proceeds to unearth a desiccated human corpse. From there, the ad veers sharply into unexpected territory and leaves the viewer as far off the beaten path as those old taillights.
4 Walmart’s Clown Who Cried
“It’s time for daddy to make some funny,” is not exactly on the top of most people’s list of “Things I’d Like To Hear From A Clown.” In this commercial, however, Walmart seemed willing to plumb the depths of phobia-related advertising. And, while it’s no great secret that laughing clowns are the bread-and-butter of traditional advertising, Walmart dared ask, “What if we made him scream, instead?” The answer is thirty-two seconds that are more frightening than all three hours of Tommy Wallace’s Stephen King’s It.
3 Nintendo’s New-Old Robot Overlords
The faceless, frizzy-haired child in this old Nintendo commercial always keeps his back to us. Absorbed as he is by the majesty of Duck Hunt, he remains ignorant to the taunts of the pixelated horrors lurking just behind him. The viewer, on the other hand, is afforded a glimpse into the mind of pure madness. The commercial’s narrator — a cross between a vengeful Stephen Hawking and an aphasic Dalek — sells us on the merits of the NES while assuring us that we can never beat 'them.'
2 PS3’s Rosemary’s Baby Doll
In another commercial that looks to capitalize on common phobias, this little tale of dread must have been crafted to to exploit our innate fear of the uncanny. A ceramic baby doll leers out across a sterile room, longingly eyeballing a nearby gaming console. Suddenly, it bursts out in uncontrolled, inhuman laughter. If the goal was to instill a fear of the PlayStation 3 into potential consumers, then the ad execs over at Sony can don their best revealing codpieces and unfurl the “Mission Accomplished” banner.
1 Kinder Surprise, Indeed
In this throwback to the tragic tale of Humpty Dumpty, Kinder Surprise drops a pile of unwanted spoilers onto their customer base. After 30 years, the nature of Kinder’s surprise is revealed and, surprise: it’s pants-crapping levels of terror. A hybrid beast, half-human and half-egg speaks some kind of incomprehensible Ned Flanders language. The creature’s beady eyes belie a subdued malice as it implores us to, “grubly” a chocolate egg and then quickly “scrubles” off.
The only remedy for the anxiety produced by this commercial is to drink a two-liter of refreshing Sprite brand cola, manufactured by the benevolent Coca-Cola Company.