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.
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.
About Steven Heller
Steven Heller is the co-chair of the SVA MFA Designer /Designer as Author + Entrepreneur program, writes frequently for Wired and Design Observer. He is also the author of over 170 books on design and visual culture. He received the 1999 AIGA Medal and is the 2011 recipient of the Smithsonian National Design Award.View all posts by Steven Heller →