Barbara Lippert’s Critique: The Dew Does It Again

Spy vs. Spy was the one cartoon I consistently skipped as a kid reading Mad magazine—I just didn’t get it, and it scared me. Black-and-white and weirdly flat, it seemed dark and passionately foreign. Why spend time deciphering the murky war between creepy, cone-faced guys in trench coats when there was a Don Martin cartoon right around the corner?

On one level, of course, it is simply Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner in black and white—instead of roads disappearing from under their feet or Acme safes plummeting from the sky to land on their heads, White Spy and Black Spy cross and double-cross each other in increasingly inventive (and elaborately backfiring) ways. White Spy reads a newspaper with the headline, “Black Spy Injured”; as he calmly turns the page, an iron falls on his foot. Black Spy builds himself an indestructible steel vest, only to have White Spy haul out an immense magnet.

There was a larger point, however, which sailed over most preteen readers’ heads, I imagine, and certainly never entered mine. The strip was a scathing commentary on the Cold War, created, written and drawn by Antonio Prohias, a political cartoonist who fled Castro’s Cuba. Good and evil, white and black, are indistinguishable and interchangeable—they keep fighting, obsessively wasting their time and resources for no discernible reason. Their devices are about equal, so they remain in some kind of hellish stasis, forever chasing each other’s tails.

That sort of knowingly political, underlying nihilism seems scarily relevant now. And certainly this will be my only opportunity to use “knowingly political, underlying nihilism” and “Mountain Dew” in the same sentence, so I’m going for it.

The obvious question—no matter how visually delicious BBDO’s conversion of the flat strip to living, breathing TV appears—is why link a soda brand to two Cold War operatives trying to destroy each other? Furthermore, how many dudes who’d be up to doing the Dew in the target audience (16-24-year-olds) have actually read Mad and are familiar with Spy vs. Spy? Perhaps only that tiny percentage who have a weird boomer uncle living upstairs with his various piles of “collections”?

One answer is that the spots are so inventive that they will get attention regardless, and kids who’ve never seen Spy vs. Spy (like my 14-year-old) will still think the ads look cool, in a virtuoso, post-Beetlejuice way.

Second, these spots come from the “Bad Cheetah” people, who have a 10-year history of wildly inspired takes on film genres and pop-culture phenoms in Mountain Dew ads. The spots have covered everything from Nature (the race between Dude and Cheetah) to Crouching Tiger to the Bible-school teachings of Davey and Goliath. (And any campaign that makes fun of Steven Seagal has my deepest gratitude.)

The extreme care that went into crafting every inch of this is obvious. BBDO has created a fresh, hermetically sealed world that is perfect in every detail, from the re-creation of the hondo-mondo, ’50s-futuristic conveyances (a helicopter, a car) and oversized comic devices (various springs and trap doors) to the size and movements of the silent, glinty-eyed, beaky cold warriors to the avant-garde-ish sound.

Except now these guys have a reason to fight: over the soda can. The landscape is parched, white and vaguely urban when the first spot opens with White Spy dragging the only piece of color into the frame, a rounded, jukebox-like red and green Mountain Dew vending machine. (The cans are red and green, too.)

The subsequent melees are as stylized as kabuki theater. There are giant mallets over transoms, trap floors, people falling through awnings—the result is a cross between Rube Goldberg and Alvin Ailey. (The people in the creepy spy suits are four-foot-something women—they moved better than men—one of whom is a dancer and one a veteran of Cirque de Soleil.) Like mobile cartoon strips, each spot is self-contained but ends with, “To be continued …”

The soundtrack, some French gibberish and piano music by The Institute Of Sonology, is as compelling as the visuals.

I’ve seen three spots (two broke last week, and two are due in the fall), and they’re all stark, weird and just plain cool. Inspector Gadget can’t even dream of kissing the hem of the needle noses’ Rudi Gernreich-like spywear.

Perhaps the war over the can has brought new meaning to the spies’ lives. And maybe it’s a comment on our times that underlying nihilism is the way to go in selling soda.



mountain dew

Agency

bbdo, new york

Chief creative officer

ted sann

Executive creative director

bill bruce

Copywriters/art directors

bill bruce,

dorris cassar

Executive producer

hyatt choate

Executive music producer

loren parkins

Director

traktor

Effects supervisor

alex frische/method