Last night, I ran across an ad that infuriated me for multiple reasons. It was a commercial for Verizon in which several middle aged dudes play basketball while casually discussing things they’ve done that are clearly poor decisions, the mention of which does not faze any of the participants one bit. Example: “I’ll tell ya what saves gas money: My kids hitch-hiking to school.” Each statement is intercut by a title card that says, BAD IDEA. It concludes with one of the dudes saying he would pick a cell phone company other than Verizon, which is the first time one of these “poor decisions” gives this group of dummies pause. You can watch the whole thing here:
If you’re of my relative age, this will remind you of a classic SNL fake commercial, Bad Idea Jeans. The premise is the same–guys casually discussing ideas that are clearly awful, with no one batting an eye. The setting is the same–guys playing a pickup game of hoops. The periodic title card intercuts are virtually the same. The jokes in the Verizon ad are not as hard edged; the SNL version has lines like “Normally I use protection, but I figured, when’s the next time I’m gonna be in Haiti?” And the original Bad Idea Jeans doesn’t have a “stinger” where one bad idea is considered beyond the pale. Still, the Verizon commercial is 99.9% the same.
This really pissed me off when I saw it last night. But what pissed me off more is the fact that I hadn’t seen any online outrage about this blatant ripoff. And that extends to myself, because once I saw it, I slowly realized, Wait, I’ve seen this Verizon ad before; why haven’t I said anything about this? A tweet on the subject garnered one lone response, while a quick Google search this morning shows some interweb consternation but not anything near what this kind of wholesale lifting should attract.
There are two possibilities as to why this ad has not garnered the seething scorn it deserves, and both are equally depressing. The first is that no one remembers the original. To me, Bad Idea Jeans is a classic SNL fake ad in the same company as Schmitt’s Gay and Colon Blow. In the case of Bad Idea Jeans, it was an oblique parody of an inescapable ad genre of that era, the self-important jeans commercial with superfluously busy camera work. But like all great comedy, the concept contained therein is so odd and perfect, it transcends the source material. You don’t have to know what a Levi’s or Dockers ad looked like in 1990 to find this funny.
To me, this commercial is a piece of our shared cultural fabric. But, I am also old, and it’s possible that many people in Verizon’s target audience– even those old enough to buy cell phone plans for themselves– are completely ignorant of Bad Idea Jeans, having been negative-3 years old when it first aired. I try to not think about the fact that people born in the 1990s are playing professional sports or own houses or have children, but damn it, it’s true. These people are adults, the same as I, yet we do not have quite the same cultural touchstones. Stuff that happened in the early 1990s holds no relevance for them, nor should it, really, and I must accept that.
The other possibility this Verizon ad hasn’t been greeted with more shrieking is that people actually do know from whence it came, but they don’t care. Because we live in such a reference-oriented culture now, one in which decontextualized references are considered jokes in and of themselves. (OHAI, everything Seth McFarlane’s ever done.) So many folks out there in TV Land may interpret this Verizon ad as more of an homage to Bad Idea Jeans than a ripoff. And for all I know, the ad’s creators may honestly see it that way, too. They don’t think they’ve “gotten away” with something; they think they’re playing by the New Rules. What passes for a new idea in the 21st century is being the first guy to complete bite something we’ve seen before.
Maybe I’m just being a cranky Get-Off-My-Lawn-ist here. There’s always been examples of repurposing old bits, joke stealing, concept swiping, and so on. I’m also a person who thinks jarts tweeting about themselves and captioning screengrabs of Dennis Miller is hilarious, so I may not be one to talk when it comes to reference-oriented comedy. Still, it’s hard for me to think we haven’t lost something in terms of what we will accept as entertainment.
Again, look at the original Bad Idea Jeans. It took something viewers of that era would be familiar with–self-serious jeans ads with weird camerawork–and used it as springboard for a truly original idea. Then look at the Verizon ad, which used an old idea as a template to make a reboot, and a much less funny/biting one at that.
And then look at me, the guy who considers himself an amateur ad historian (1980s forward, anyway) and yet couldn’t get mad about this until repeat viewings. Maybe I’m more deadened by this recycled world than I realized.