On Hoaxes, Spoofs, and Parodies

Hoaxes, spoofs, and parodies play a huge and sometimes dubious role in our social and political discourse. The spoofer is akin to the trickster of old. And the trickster’s job was to force people to question perceived reality to uncover real truth. From Not The New York Times to The Onion to The Daily Show and Colbert Report, bufoonery is raked over the coals of comedy through subterfuge.  This Is Spinal Tap was a brilliant “mocumentary” (great pun) that was so real its satiric characters became a real touring act. These examples, however, let the audience know through winks, nods, and words (like the “Not”) that they are not for real. The London Subway suicide ad campaign covered on Friday’s Nightly Daily Heller is so realistic, the only giveaway was its absurdly insensitive inconceivability.

Likewise, some of you may have seen this 2005 video advertising parody known as the VW “suicide bomber” ad. A WorldNetDaily.com article describes the spot:

The ad — which plays on the VW Polo’s tagline “small but tough” — shows a man in fatigues and a Middle Eastern keffiyeh getting in his Polo and driving to the front of a sidewalk restaurant. Still in the driver’s seat, he detonates a bomb belt. A flash appears inside the car, but the vehicle does not explode. Then comes the strapline: “Polo. Small but tough.”
Revolution magazine reported the ad was produced by Lee and Dan, a team known for doing spoof advertising among legitimate work.

Speaking of VW, The National Lampoon‘s infamous Teddy Kennedy ad was a visually spot-on replica of VW’s ad produced by Doyle Dane Bernbach, claiming the Beetle was so well sealed it could float. The Lampoon had to recall the magazine and issue an apology. The issued this retraction: “Even if Ted Kennedy had driven a Volkswagen he wouldn’t be president today.” As offensive as this appeared to many, it was seen as hilarious by others. Nonetheless, the parody appeared in a magazine that announced itself as a “lampoon.”

The question of tastelessness underscores and defines much humor. Where is the line? Should there be lines that cannot be crossed? Is all satire a means to an end? Satire has always walked, toed, and stepped over lines of propriety. Each generation pushes the line further out, steps back a bit, and then pushes some more. The London suicide ad campaign is indeed tasteless, but it may do what a lot of dark humor attempts: to trigger discussion and force awareness of social concerns that may have been left unspoken for fear of being in bad taste.

For more Steven Heller, check out Design Humor: The Art of Graphic Wit, one of the many Heller titles available at MyDesignShop.com.

5 thoughts on “On Hoaxes, Spoofs, and Parodies

  1. Guy Badeaux

    The Volkswagen parody was created by Ann Beatts in a book published by the Lampoon. She also created in the same issue a parody of a US Army ad. The catch phrase was “Hire a veteran, he has a $50 a day habit”. She went on to write for SNL and then a sitcom starring Jane Curtin.

  2. RWordplay

    Nice piece, and important, too, in light of the success of Stewart and Colbert, and the increasing reluctance of so many people to look for secondary sources or alternative views. My problem with the current state of “subversive humor” is that few can distinquish between, say parody and satire. I’ve always thought the former is employed largely for its entertainment value and to poke at the pompous, while satire is always political in nature, and often has consequences for its writers, particularly in totalitarian regimes. I think one reason we have less meaningful political debate or actual dissention in our country is that popular culture subverts all satire and turns it into a form of entertainment—a joke that dissipates with the second or third telling.