In the future of Idiocracy, Carl’s Jr.’s slogan becomes “Fuck You, I’m Eating”… which isn’t really a stretch from the attitude expressed in their current ad campaign.

David Armano’s Logic+Emotion blog today discusses a tacky new ad from Hardees & Carl’s Junior, in which a pair of smarmy white high school kids rap about their stripper/teacher’s “flat buns”, intended to introduce the world to their new “Flat Bun Burger” product. The ad really is just too stupid to describe, and I won’t even bother put the video of the ad here, since David has already (and reluctantly, by his own admission) put the ad up on his own site for you to see.

The commercial seems like a scene right out of the excellent and wildly-underrated movie Idiocracy (directed by Mike Judge, of Office Space and Beavis and Butthead fame). In the not-so-distant future in which Idiocracy is set, Carl’s Jr. is one of the dozen or so corporations who essentially control a world populated entirely by people with below-50 IQs and whose culture has devolved into shameless gluttony, juvenile sexuality, and crass violence. A professional wrestler is President, law degrees are sold at Costco, slot machines are in hospitals, and lounge chairs have food-dispensing hoses and toilets built into them.

This ad only helps to cement the movie’s profound prescience about the reality of our rapidly-dumbing culture and the overall downward trajectory we often seem to be heading towards, often hand-in-hand with corporate consumer marketing. In fact, every day I see a dozen commercials or products that seem right out of the future world of Idiocracy — but I see them right here in 2007 America. The movie is a satire, of course, but as with all the best satire it frequently and repeatedly hits shockingly close to home. (Happily, you can go ahead and view lots of hilarious scenes from Idiocracy on YouTube right now.)

On Human Dignity

I work on interactive marketing for some major consumer brands, but I am perpetually grateful that I never have to work on ads like this. Behavior’s clients are almost exclusively blue-chip brands with deep respect for their customers, users, and audiences. But many designers are sometimes presented with the option of either doing something classy or doing something crass and degrading. We have a choice between treating the customer with respect and treating them with contempt. The makers of this ad are either morons (which I doubt) or people who think of their customers as moronic assholes ripe for exploitation.

In fact, in the comments on David’s blog there is much speculation about the creative meetings in which this ad was hatched. I can only say that if I were working at a company producing ads like this, I would fight hard to do something classier, or I would quit and go work for someone a little less cynical about respecting human dignity. I don’t want to be one of the architects of the Idiocracy future.

As designers of experiences and shapers of brands, we do have a choice in this matter, even when working for clients who may have an inclination to “go negative” and tap into this poisoned well. Even if you suspect that an ad like this would actually work, that it would actually succeed in bringing millions of people into Hardees/Carls Jr. to buy these flat bun burgers, you have a responsibility to the inherent dignity of the human race to NOT produce ads like this.

Note: It’s not the sexuality of the ad I object to. I still think Van Halen’s “Hot for Teacher” (the obvious inspiration for this spot) is cool. The music’s kinda catchy, too. There’s just something about the whole thing, maybe it’s the over-the-top glorification of juvenileness and stupidity, that makes me sad for everyone involved with this ad and the millions of other cultural products like it that crowd our media landscape more and more.

Do you work on marketing that relies on these themes of disrespect, selfishness, immaturity, and stupidity? If so, how do you justify it? Do you have a choice in the matter, or do you feel that you have a higher obligation to give your clients or your customers what they seem to crave?


13 responses to “Idiocracy is Reality”

  1. “Idiocracy” was indeed excellent and clearly underrated, but I don’t think it was particularly prescient. To me, it just took what has been evident about modern consumer culture — that it is perpetuating an ever increasing cycle of stupidity — one or two steps beyond where it stood ca. 2006. It did it very smartly and hilariously, for sure… but it’s sad that the “Idiocracy” vision took only a little bit of imagination.

  2. Eric Gauvin Avatar
    Eric Gauvin

    In addition to Hot for Teacher, probably also inspired by Sir Mix A Lot (?) I remember that seemed quite outrageous at the time, today perhaps less outrageous.


    Which also inspired this (go figure):


    At risk of being brutally attacked, I found Andrew Keen’s book The Cult of the Amateur very interesting because it examines the impacts on our culture of creations like this that “crowd our media landscape.” “Idiocracy” illustrates what I think Keen agues in his book. I’d love to know what you think of that book. Although a bit outrageous in it’s own way, it raises some interesting points. You have to think that the makers of advertising like this have to be more and more outrageous to get noticed and become viral on youtube. It’s like the TV show in “Idiocracy” that’s just about a guy who gets hit in the balls over and over.

    As for buns, I like them round. 🙂

  3. @ Khoi: Interesting perspective… maybe Idiocracy isn’t prescient at all, but instead I am simply noticing all the stupid and degrading things in our culture more than I used to, and making the connection that these crass and degenerate products must be part of a larger dumbification trend. Idiocracy takes place, what, 500 years in the future? But you’re right, it does look more like 5 or ten years out.

    Wait, did I just use the word “degenerate“? Holy crap. I feel like such a conservative whenever I am railing against cultural products, but honestly when my critique has nothing to do with cultural supremacy, religious bigotry, or sexual prudishness, and is instead based entirely on how stupid the object of my ire is, I don’t feel like quite as much of a school marm or a nazi. Being biased against willful stupidity? I have no problem with that.

  4. @Eric: I’ve not read the book, but I would draw a distinction between Keen’s topic (our acceptance of mediocrity in our cultural products, and the removal of qualified cultural gatekeepers to maintain the quality of what we consume) and Idiocracy’s topic (our deliberate and happy embrace of willful stupidity, grotesque violence, selfish greed, and perpetually stunted adolescence). The result may be the same (a ruined culture), but I think that the culture portrayed in Idiocracy is not at all one that came from bottom-up, DiY, unfiltered user-generated processes… but rather Idiocracy’s world was architected and distributed from the top-down: corporate marketing departments, ad agencies, and designers like me are even now inventing and promulgating the crass and degraded culture that the idiots of our future will inhabit. We are the responsible parties.

  5. Eric Gauvin Avatar
    Eric Gauvin

    I think you’ve got a good point about the top-down, bottom-up distinction, but my fear is that they work together so well. A dumbed-down people/culture is definitely easier to sell to/in. I think I’ll have to watch that movie a second time.

  6. a question pops into my head: why would “hot for the teacher” tickles me and the hardees’ ad strikes me as juvenile, when their message seems similar to the layman me.

    could it be that it lies all in the execution of by the creative team, where a really good team might be able to see fully the impact of tis product and strives to maintain a balance between keeping up-to-date and yet as you said it and not become one of the architecture of a Idiocracy future.

    I still have plenty to go in mastering my craft but I hope perhaps one day I might be able to tackle such a project and do it well.

  7. @henry: Why is “Hot for Teacher” good and “Flat Buns” bad? Good question. Maybe it’s simply a generational thing, but I suspect also it’s because Van Halen, and many rock bands, have a sense of self-parody about them, and that when we watch them we share this vibe. But not only does “Flat Buns” lack any sense of parody (or any sense of anything at all), it is so rife with cliches, rip-offs, and corniness that I can’t feel like there’s anything remotely cool about it.

    And on top of that it is, at least to me, kinda disgusting to blend gross unhealthy greasy junk food with sexuality. Perhaps it’s because in America both fast-food and sexuality have become, for many people, so artificial and mediated that advertisers feel free to connect the two so hamfistedly.

  8. I agree with you on the new Carl’s Jr. ad, and I agree that there is a widespread “dumbing down” of American culture right now.

    However, when I watched Idiocracy, I was left with a really foul taste in my mouth, and it wasn’t from “the thirst mutilator”.

    According to my old High School AP English course, the difference between satire and sarcasm is that the former uses ridicule to highlight a problem in hopes that public awareness will see it for what it really is. (See Jonathan Swift, or Mark Twain in his prime) Sarcasm, however, is the use of ridicule mostly to make the speaker feel better. At times it can disguise itself as a satire. (See Mark Twain’s later work)

    This is one of the two problems I have with Idiocracy— rather than offering insight into the demise of human intelligence, it feels like Mike Judge is just complaining about it, making enough clever jokes to make you laugh and feel superior.

    The other problem I have with the movie is a bit more complex. It took me a while to figure this one out, and it relates to my day job as a teacher at a trade school.

    You see, the human mind isn’t a static thing. It keeps growing, adapting. Provided sufficiently good nutrition, even the must intellectually starved people are capable of learning and going on to do amazing things. Rather than being a function of IQ (a test even the APA admits is outdated), a person’s ability to think is as much a factor of their will as anything. To put it in terms even an under-50 IQ can understand: people don’t stay stupid if they want to learn and are given a chance to do so.

    In Mike Judge’s Idiocracy, either this concept has never occured to the writers, or they’ve completely thrown in the towel on America (and incidentally on the rest of the world, since in Idiocracy America is apparently the only country left). Whether they’re doing this for hyperbole or simply because their argument can’t hold weight any other way, the effect is the same.

    The funniest part is, I used to make the very same argument about America that you and Mike Judge has done. Then I watched this movie, and spent two hours listening to the same arrogant eugenicist pontification I was spouting, and finally heard it for what it really was.

    Maybe in this way, Idiocracy is a satire after all.

  9. @Jack Meyer: Would you think this way if the central conceit wasn’t genetic in origin? Because I don’t see the _cause_ of the dumbed-down future as important to the point of the movie. In fact, although the opening scenes are funny IMHO, the film’s real point is that we are heading in the Idiocracy direction _anyway_, that our _culture_ is becoming crass, vulgar, selfish, mean, and stupid even without the aid of anti-Darwinian de-evolution. Everyone is stupid, really, for exactly the reasons you describe — they do not want to learn. They want, instead, to watch pornography and violence while being fed sweet fatty food through a tube.

    In other words, the genetic part of the movie’s conceit is a satirical metaphor for our _cultural_ de-evolution. It’s not about inherent intelligence _at all_, but is about the ethical and moral structure of our (in many ways) increasingly anti-intellectual society. IQ is a metaphor for culture itself. We are losing our cultural need to be able to read, socialize, and even to think. That’s what I get from the movie.

    To be clear: Neither I nor (I think) Mike Judge gives a flying fuck about whether or not stupid people reproduce more than smart people, and I fully understand that, genetically speaking, this effect is impossible. In the movie, it’s supposed to be a joke. And in all honestly, the smart people in that movie are such detestable characters, too, that I can’t imagine Judge would want a world populated by them, either (ever see Zardoz?).

    In any event, it is the rare satire that does anything at all more than simply satisfy and reinforce the beliefs of the satirist and his/her sympathetic audience. I don’t imagine any Irish families were saved by Swift’s clever words. Your distinction between satire and sarcasm is merely a matter of the level of cruelty behind it, and maybe the vulgarity of the delivery mechanism, but I think the difference has nothing to do with the product’s ability to change people’s minds.

  10. If we focus sharing views on dysgenics, we will probably only serve to get what it is we have focused on. My view is that freedom dictates that what others do on a legally acceptable basis is their own business and that this dialogue can only be viewed properly through the twin lens of intelligence and compassion.

    Intelligence governs our own ability to become our own media and be education itself, serving to draw in what is rich, purposeful and meaningful to bring value into our own individual lives, so that become continous learners, learning to observe and improving our thinking from our own mistakes and observational engagement.

    Compassion also governs our own ability to avoid the inevitable trappings of ego or the erection of unintended elitism and so to recognize that on the whole, what others consume, is what shapes and influences their particular lives. Either they awaken to their own intelligence or they remain spiritually asleep, for how can anyone here what they are not tuned into. Compassion here means seeing waste as a natural and not abnormal part of life.

    When we are “media and education” ourselves, we are no longer in the business of transmitting messages and media, but to serve as individual agents that clear the noise and distractions that come hurtling towards us in the form of attention. Our primary responsibility is to cut through this media jungle, rather than plant more forests of attention.

    When attention fills our minds we can not possibly have time to think these things through and therefore be transformed by our own thinking. So IMHO at this point I replace social transmission with individual transformation.

    I don’t see how transmission assists those whose attention span is already flooded by the mirror neuron which equates transmission and not transformation with media. By that score I see we develop attention overload.

    Now as I consider this, that by simply thinking out aloud here so I can look at my own thoughts, it can trigger the very transmission of reaction and response that serves to actually hinder me rather than help me in the process of ,y observation. Groupthink is the inevitable result of socially transmitted memes and I want to leave it to people like Richard Dawkins and Seth Godin, to engage the process of transmission. I seek to know the nature of my own thoughts without the label of expert as to how others should seek to examine the nature of their own thoughts.

    How do we raise the bar on our thinking if we don’t generate for our own selves the space and time to think. Here again, developing intelligence must be supported by raising compassion, for the usual response to media is to look for thought leaders and create personal guru’s – yet the factual reality of existence is as simple as people like Jiddu Krishnamurti said they actually were, that mankind can be transformed when one it learns to thinks for itself and establish facts that lead to personal truths over a lifetime and not on media-time (which is about public image not personal relationship).

    Yet followership is both a byproduct of both modern education and modern media. How can we assist attention when we engage in the tranmission process and in so doing negate the transformation process. My own idiocracy is a fertile naivety for my own learning, it is not a process to collect and gather a mountain of idiocracy so others can judge or focus on it – which IMHO actually serves a detrimental purpose to both imagination and clarity.

    What does all of what I have thought above mean, please above all don’t ask me, figure this out yourselves – don’t let any of my thinking poison the originality of your own thoughts – for I can only become education and media itself when I cease adding to the transmission and ask that you think your own thoughts rather than simply react and respond to what is meant to be a personal observation (thinking out aloud) and not another public transmission or a social education. Whether you do or do not do that is your responsibility, but intelligence served by compassion is at least for the meantime, the pathway that serves me the best to lower media attention and increase my capability and capacity to learn to see.


  11. Francesca Avatar

    You can see the brilliant satire of Idiocracy, and yet take the Jack in the Box ad so literally and sooo seriously? I think it’s probably only generational prejudice that makes you see this ad as any different from Hot for Teacher, which seemed really objectifying in its day- if you’re gonna go down that road. I like the ad.

  12. The ad is stupid. Idiocracy is a very funny and underrated movie.

    The ad is funny in that it is connecting an aspect of skinniness with fast food. It’s totally juvenile, it objectifies women, and that’s sort of the point. Who else is going to be moved by a commercial spot to patronize a fast food place? 12 year old boys.

    If women were being ill used to sell a tech or business product (as in the “tasteful nude” naked-chick palm ads of a few years ago) then I would be concerned.

  13. Mom/Patience Merriman Avatar
    Mom/Patience Merriman

    “Hot for Teacher” is –underneath it all, if you will forgive the pun — a song the celebrates the subject of the singer’s longing (albeit in a puerile way.)

    “Flat Buns” is cruel and denigrating because it reduces the teacher to her body parts — and then mocks those parts.

    That’s why you smile at one and cringe at the other.