To some people, just the idea of poutine—a gloopy mixture of French fries, cheese curd and gravy invented in winter-addled Quebec—is surreal enough. And then there are the ads:
New York Fries is a Canadian-based company that has elevated poutine innovation to new heights, what with some decidedly un-traditional ingredients (Butter chicken! Braised beef and mushrooms!) The company's latest ad campaign takes an equally avant-garde approach.
In one recent radio spot, listeners start by sinking into the soothing sounds of Gordon Pinsent's voice. Pinsent, a household name in Canada beloved for his heart-warming Christmas-time dramas and for spoofing Justin Bieber, starts off by playing it straight and describing the delectable ingredients of butter chicken poutine just as you might expect from any well-behaved radio ad. Then, mid-way through, he launches into a bizarre metaphor, with accompanying vocal calisthenics: New York Fries, we're told, are perfect, just like "finding the perfect pair of jeans for your kitten, little designer ones that sit low on the hips, so that little kitten can work those designer jeans all sassy-like."
The ad has to be heard to be believed. (You can listen to all the NYF spots here.)
The radio ads make brilliant use of incongruity, snagging your attention by setting up a conventional set of expectations and then pulling the rug out from under your feet. But they also do something else that's interesting: they throw you into a state of disorientation. You can't figure out what the ad is supposed to mean. Does it mean anything?
The strategy is similar to the long-running edgy Ketel One print campaign. These ads consisted of utter non-sequiturs such as "Dear Ketel One drinker: This is an advertisement for the aforementioned product. Sorry."
We humans are meaning-extraction machines, and when we're faced with a message that's been created by another human being for the purpose of communicating with us, we throw all our cognitive energies into trying to decipher its intent. We're masters at reading between the lines. Think of all the meaning we suck out of a casual "hey, are you doing anything on Friday?" (especially when uttered by the hot colleague we've been eyeing for weeks). Usually, we can tell with fairly good accuracy when we're being subtly propositioned or blackmailed, or when we've been damned with faint praise. Communication like this can work because we're usually very good at grasping the point behind the most indirect of messages.
But these ads don't work like that—they leave us perplexed and nonplussed. It's a uniquely befuddling experience to flounder around and come up empty when it comes to figuring out the intent behind a message.
And something interesting happens to many people when they're thrown into that state. The instinct to pull some sense out of the message goes into hyper-drive, and if the message itself fails to yield any sense, they look for meaning—any meaning—in the immediate vicinity.
For example, fascinating research by Travis Proulx and Steve Heine has shown that after reading an absurdist story by Franz Kafka, people were better at detecting the patterns in a structured artificial language.
But the sense-seeking drive can take a decidedly political turn when the meanings that people latch onto come from their traditional social structures. Being exposed to absurdist art or Monty Python parodies also caused people to take a more punitive stance towards a prostitute in a courtroom scenario and to identify more strongly with their own linguistic or ethnic backgrounds. The idea is that being confronted with senselessness is so threatening that it causes people to find relief in their traditional values and social structures.
Of course, the NYF ads aren't meant to feel threatening—they're pitched at the sophisticates who can clue in to the fact that the ads aren't supposed to lead you to any purposeful meaning. You're supposed to stop making sense! and simply wallow in the pure, joyful, pointless fun of the whole thing. And the research by Proulx and Heine shows that when people get this, they can enjoy senseless stories and art without launching in hot pursuit of meaning elsewhere.
If public reaction to strange and surreal art is any indication though, I suspect that, like the Ketel One ads, the NYF campaign will draw strong love-it-or-hate-it reactions from people. Some, I predict, will just not be able to get over their initial WTF? responses. The need for meaning will be too intense.
Which raises an interesting issue: Conservative parties aren't typically known for their strong support of avant-garde forms of art. But maybe they're missing a golden opportunity. And maybe, instead of firing attack ads at the other side to mobilize their base, they should start broadcasting their tough-on-crime ads and family-values messages on the heels of those wonderfully absurd NYF commercials.
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The NYF ad campaign was first brought to my attention by business journalist Simon Houpt. You can read the results of our conversation about these ads here.
You can read more about the research on meaning-compensation here:
Proulx, T. & Heine, S. J. (2010). The frog in Kierkegaard's beer: Finding meaning in the threat compensation literature. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 4, 889-995.
Proulx, T., Heine, S. J., & Vohs, K. D. (2010). When is the unfamiliar the uncanny? Meaning affirmative after exposure to absurdist literature, humor, and art. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 36, 817-829
Proulx, T., & Heine, S. J. (2009). Connections from Kafka: Exposure to schema threats improves implicit learning of an artificial grammar. Psychological Science, 20, 1125-1131
Copyright © 2011 Julie Sedivy, All Rights Reserved