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How to Identify Advertising that Crosses the Absurd Line

By: John Malmo

John Malmo began an advertising agency on a cardtable above a delicatessen in 1967 and built it into the largest in the mid-south. He also owned a travel agency, a clock shop, and a snack food manufacturing company. He is president of Koenig, Inc., Management Consulting, specializing in marketing, and he writes a weekly business commentary column for The Commercial Appeal. His 45 years of marketing experience encompass, virtually, every business category. Email him at:

It is at just the point at which you believe something has become as absurd as it can possibly get that you discover you must redefine absurd.  Take advertising.  No.  Better yet, take automobile advertising.

A recent issue of Fortune Magazine had a two-page advertisement for Nissan Motorsí Infiniti J30 automobile.  The headline read:  "Itís not a car.  Itís an aphrodisiac."  That is interesting, because it is slightly to the right of a photo of what certainly looks like a car and occupies about 75% of the advertising space.

The headline must have been written to assure that the reader does not mistake the other 75% of the space as a car.  And yet the 75% is clearly a car.  A car is "a vehicle moved on wheels."  An aphrodisiac is that which "excites to venery" (sexual intercourse), according to Websterís New Collegiate Dictionary.  With all parts of the car photograph under a magnifying glass there appears nothing even subliminally thereon that would excite one to venery.  It is certainly, though, one great looking car.

After these proper definitions and magnified examination of the graphic elements of the advertisement one can conclude only one thing.  There are a bunch of guys at Nissan Motors who clearly exhibit odd tendencies.

We were not all born yesterday, of course, and we know about the clever ways of the automobile world to take advantage of our secret personalities.  That cars are supposed to express our innermost desires.  So the sophisticated reader concludes that, naturally, what they mean is that this is one sexy car.  One can conclude further, though, that what they say is to be seen in an Infiniti J30 is to excite other people or other cars to venery.  The implications of that are simply too bizarre for description.  But here is how things like this happen.

"What we have here is very clear," Girard said.  "Thatís really a sexy car."

And everyone agreed that was probably right.  

Then Jonathon said, "Right on, but sexyís not strong enough.  Too wimpy."  

ĎRound and around the advertising team went, and Anthony jumped up drooling, "Sex symbol.  Thatís what it is.  Sex symbol."

"Utterly unsophisticated.  Tired," Stephan blurted.  "No penache.  The targetís sophisticated, readers of Fortune, and any sharp soul whoís popping 34 grand for a J30 is into more than two-syllable words.  What the bloody thing is is an aphrodisiac."

So then in the film lab Bud shows the ad to Joe.  "Joe, whatís this?"

And Joe says, "Nice lookin' car."

And Bud says, "I thought so at first, too, but itís not.  Itís an aphrodisiac."

"Well, it may be a Lexus or a Mazda, maybe itís even a Pontiac, but thatís no Aphrodisiac.  They have tail fins," says Joe.

"No, man, I mean doesnít this thing excite you to venery?"

"For the good of both of us, it hasnít yet," Joe says.

"Then itís not working.  The adís not working," says Bud.  "Here, let me read you some more of it . . . 24-hour roadside assistance program . . . impressive technological features . . . variable valve timing system . . . double isolated multi-link rear suspension . . . three-sensor, three-channel A B S braking.  Itís what happens when you cross sheet metal and desire."

Panting heavily, Joe finally comes around, "Why didnít you tell me all that in the first place.  If that ainít sexual discourse you can gimme the chair."

Finally, there is one clear line near the end of the copy that is right smack on target.  The J30, it says, is "Something indefinable."  In those terms they have certainly succeeded.

Cars have "double isolated multi-link rear suspensions."  Aphrodisiacs of lore do not.  And it is difficult, certainly, to imagine making love under such conditions.  If the advertiser does not want that photo of a good looking car to be a car that is his option.  He may call it a jug of barbecue sauce if he chooses.  It is his $100,000 for the ad in Fortune.  What does seem juxtaposed, however, is to spend that money to describe an aphrodisiacís three-sensor, three-channel A B S  braking.

As for the guys at Nissan, take two raw oysters and go to bed.

© Copyright 2000, John Malmo

Other Articles by John Malmo

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