This sort of faux-edgy fare simply marks, on one level, the saturation of the shock-value market for copywriters. Having applied every available smarmy turn of the screw to the self-conscious irony ad (in which consumers are winningly reminded they're being played for suckers and then disingenuously flattered for their consummate good-sportsmanship), and already done sex (if you'll pardon the expression) to death, Madison Ave.'s creative consuls cannot help but regard the symbolic conquest of mortality as the final frontier.
The only trouble, of course, is that there's death and, you know, death. Certainly based on the abysmal reception and, uh, execution of Benneton's shrill yet banal "We on Death Row" campaign, which gave inmates awaiting execution the basic Tiger Beat teen idol treatment, absolutely no brief should be held for the ad industry's capacity to confront the seriousness of real-life death. In the glossy campaign, which debuted as a supplement to the content-challenged Miramax synergy vehicle Talk, Death Row inmates were quizzed on their views of the Monica Lewinsky scandal between cuddly softball queries concerning which simple civilian pleasures they missed most. Flogged tirelessly by the fashion line's "controversial" creative director Oliverio Toscani as an effort to "humanize" the internees marked for state elimination, "We on Death Row" actually produced the reverse effect: It totemized them into the moral equivalent of Care Bears for the global liberal elite, creating a context-free politics of symbolic moralizing indistinguishable, in practical terms, from voyeuristic social predation. As broad-target propaganda, "We on Death Row" hopelessly muddled the moral case against the barbarities of the death penalty with the advertorial vacuities of celebrity journalism. (Another tremor of the whole affair's demagnetized moral compass was disclosed when Sears announced it was discontinuing its own junior line of Benneton wear due to customer complaints over the campaign: Inadvertently distilling the skewed sense of moral proportion at play here, a Sears spokesman solemnly intoned, "The whole episode is tragic, for the victims, for Sears and for Benneton.") The only silver lining wrested from the whole bathetic spectacle was Toscani's own recently announced permanent confinement within the smooth and towering prison walls of Talk.
But for true reality-bending Thanato-porn, ponder the layered auto-exculpatory insouciance of a little Mountain Dew number called "Dem Bones." The soundtrack modifies the old black church spiritual of the same name with a streamlined, gently swinging sort of beat; the refrain, of course, repurposes the original song's promise of bodily resurrection ("Dem bones going to dance around") to a rather more Dew specific message: "That's how you slam it down." But the footage still references, in achingly graphic ways, the plight of our poor, fallen physical frames: The now-familiar Dew pitchmen of extreme sports dudes are shown careening into walls, veering off course at fearsome speed, smashing up their heads, crotches, and the odd limb. At length, we see the multiethnic Dew "production team" of young, hip, and smirking extreme-everything enthusiast dudes. Here, however, they are reduced to groaning and wincing over both the footage and a particular sports casualty laid out on an OR gurney beneath them. But just when things seem grimmest, a restorative battery of Dew cans comes streaming down the hospital corridors, and the patient is restored to full extreme prowess: When we last see him, he is surfing his gurney down the hospital halls, as the requisite group of uptight, skittish and square bystanders look on in horror. Cut to X-rayed skeleton hand grabbing a Dew can, and its attached X-rayed skull in profile, slamming down the phosphorescent caffeinated beverage of joy.
What distinguishes "Dem Bones" from standard-issue ads that bestow miraculous healing properties on a highly sweetened form of snake oil is a real-life backstory. In December 1995, Rob Harris, a world-class practitioner of skyboarding the most extreme of extreme sports died after his parachute cords became tangled during a Mountain Dew ad shoot. A predictable flurry of outraged editorials blossomed on the risks of extreme sports and their commercial glorification, only to vanish just as swiftly down the national memory hole. There's no conceivable way, however, that Mountain Dew and its copywriters could have forgotten Harris's death; indeed, it's hard to see "Dem Bones" as anything other than the ultimate waiver of corporate liability in the only tribunal that could make any sense to beverage marketers the court of imagineered consumer fantasy. Here, we are encouraged to believe that Rob Harris didn't die at all or rather, that his death could not have been in vain, since he was sacrificing his life in the cause of promoting a green liquid that now empowers and reanimates all of his fallen and injured comrades.
But even that glum, extreme Christian subtext is not the most gruesome thing about "Dem Bones." Formerly, there was a blunt, if chill, moral economy to consciously undertaken mortal risk: Its acolytes would stare coldly into the cavernous eye holes of what William James memorably dubbed "the skull grinning in at the banquet" and heedlessly throw their lives away on the field of battle, most notoriously, but more generally in the service of some ennobling ideal or another. History proved many of them suckers, to be sure, but they were at least illusionless and spiritually mature suckers.
Now, the proposition of imperiling life and limb is quite literally a zero sum game, undertaken only for the sake of courting amusement or defying boredom. So the foolishness of extreme imperilment can only be rationalized by flatly disavowing the reality of its terms. But here the punchline takes a nasty turn: In denying the possibility of a squarely apprehended death, "Dem Bones" and its many companion pieces in the burgeoning subgenre of the splatter ad ultimately deny the possibility of life. And so this morbid marketing strategy's ultimate measure of success will not be to have cheated death through consumer self-congratulation, but to have deadened enough of our own modest sensibilities that when our mortal coil finally unfurls, we will no longer notice the difference.