There’s no such thing as scary ads, part II. How Come?

November 19, 2008

images2“I want to be in commercials too!”

Writing about horror movies has me thinking about the various genres one finds in advertising films: comedy, drama, suspense, documentary, testimonial…

But where’s horror? For the life of me I can’t think of one intentionally frightening TV commercial. Certainly, there have been scary spots. Crispin’s infamous car crash commercials for VW shocked us all. (By the way, several years before the Crispin campaign, Leo Burnett did the exact same thing for the Seatbelts Commission. Though produced, I don’t think the commercials ever ran. Management found them too harsh. Fools.)

Anyway, scary as VW’s commercials were, one would be hard pressed to label them as horror. By definition (“inspiring repugnance and dread”) they fit the term but one can’t categorize these films that way. Horror usually has a supernatural element, something outside the bounds of human reality. Demons. Ghouls. Ghosts. Creatures of malevolence. The undead. Filming a car crash –no matter how horrifying- does not make a horror film.

And the countless commercial parodies of famous monsters (Frankenstein, Dracula, etc) absolutely are not horror films. Most are scary bad. “What’s in your wallet?” The mad doctor asks his hunchbacked assistant in Capital One’s evermore-grating campaign. Horrid but it’s not horror.

Public service often uses brutal imagery to make its point. Limbless people, wasted away drug addicts, and so on. But again, these are not horror films. More like documentaries or testimonials.

Several years ago my team on Altoids set out to be the first to create true horror films. Given Altoids’ “curiously strong” mantra the goal seemed appropriate. The campaign’s rich history of creative innovation made us even hungrier for the challenge. My two able lieutenants, Noel Haan and Andrew Meyer fabricated several marvelous scenarios, which we sold to the client. Even after years of successfully breaking the rules, our client was nervous (somewhat understandably) about making true horror pictures. “We don’t want to scare consumers, Steffan,” they argued. “Not really.”

We were determined. The execution I was most passionate about featured an unholy child, alone with her music box (reminiscent of an Altoids tin), sitting cross-legged on the floor in an attic. Bent over it, she slowly winds the creepy toy, causing it to emit a painful and cryptic sound, each note building more and more tension. The fear becomes palpable. Right before the ungodly toy springs open we cut to black. Super: Altoids. The Curiously Strong Mints.

Had Pandora’s box (the Altoids tin) been truly opened? What Hell hath the girl unleashed?  As any true aficionado of the genre will tell you, the true horror is in never knowing for sure.

In pre production, I recall discussing the spots with none other than director, Wes Craven. We were that serious, that hell-bent on creating horror. Alas, Wes had another film to make and we had to move on. Never the less, we made our commercials. So far, I cannot locate my favorite but “Circus Freaks” is on Fire Brands. It’s a nifty film, but it’s not scary. Is it horror?

In the end, I doubt true horror can ever be captured in a TV spot. Instead, we’ll just have to settle for “ghost ads” at Cannes.


5 Responses to “There’s no such thing as scary ads, part II. How Come?”

  1. Jason Fox said

    I think you could capture true horror in a TV spot. But I don’t think you’re going to see it anytime soon — at least not on general broadcast or basic cable. Why? Because I think a truly frightening spot would break the implicit contract between advertisers and the audience. We, as advertisers, are allowed (even encouraged) to entertain via drama, comedy, wow-factor (e.g., Honda’s Rube Goldberg-esque spot from a couple years ago), and even shock value. But to literally frighten someone with an ad in the horror genre? Well, that’s a bit too unexpected and unwanted during a commercial break. At least for now. Tastes could change. But I really hope not. But then, I’m a comedy guy.

  2. Andy Webb said

    Trying to think of a product where horror commercials might work. Stihl chainsaws? Nah…

  3. SRP said

    Altoids really had a shot at true horror but, ultimately, that “contract” Jason speaks of probably prevented us from achieving it. Still, I’m hard pressed to find an example. However, I do believe a Nike spot (featuring a woman runner being chased by a deranged psychopath) just might qualify.

  4. Jason Fox said

    Yeah, the Nike spot was close (see it here:, but it naturally ends with an ironic twist. And I think that’s how any pseudo-horror spot would have to be presented to get produced.

  5. kmf said

    Loved that Altoids spot. Very Tim Burton-esque. An amalgam of creepy/freaky/twisted more so than terror/horror, in my humble opinion. And that’s a combination you don’t find in advertising.

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