Barbara Lippert’s Critique: Long Live the Dudes

Mountain Dew’s heroes, as dim as ever, still resonate

A Visa check card commercial that recently started running again shows a dad taking his kid to a pet store; they agree on a critter and he tries to pay with a regular check. In the time it takes for the sales clerk to check on the check, the shop’s rabbits just keep, er, reproducing. (“Love is in the air,” the music declares delicately.) By the end, every inch of the store is covered in clumps of bunnies.

For the past couple of years, it’s been the same for dudes in advertising, metaphorically, of course. Every inch of possible ad space is littered with them. They’re everywhere, usually in twos, looking clueless, scratching their strange facial hair, wearing rumpled shirts and asking dumb and reflexive questions. Which leads us to ask, dumbly and reflexively: Why so many dudes in advertising?

For one thing, dudevertising is your basic buddy movie writ small. As with most films, many products seem to target 19-year-old males (whether they are in the body of a 12- or a 45-year-old), and these dude spots, with their glorification of goofy and ordinary guys, provide an easy way to tell a story that immediately resonates with said market. A new pair seems to be out there every day; about the least funny are the fake and forced guys in the latest Subway spots (perhaps to make us forget about the chubbier and angrier Jared).

By contrast, any analysis of the dude canon leads to worship at the absolute Holy Grail of all Dudaica, Mountain Dew advertising. The “Do the Dew” dudes debuted 10, count them, 10 years ago, even before the Dumb and Dumber guys and a half-generation pre-Jackass; it was a time when Ashton Kutcher was learning cursive and the Dell dude was wearing a night brace. The dudes actually first appeared in ’91 in a spot for diet Dew, in which they surveyed the most extreme of extreme sports and said, “Been there, done that,” and actually coined the term, a contribution to American culture right up there with “Don’t go there.” And the campaign has remained fresh and imaginative through all those wild, nature-defying executions (“Cheetah” and “Ram” are all-time greats).

The same goat boy (actor Esteban Powell) who did such a, like, totally righteous, gnarly job in “Ram” shows up as a kayaker in “Whale.” It’s unexpected and pretty funny. Dew boy’s drink attracts the whale, and, like Jonah, he is violently swallowed up—kayak and all—into the belly of the beast. Once he realizes what’s happened, he lights a torch and finds other Dew drinkers (they look like voted-off Survivors). In the Bible parable, Jonah is vomited out upon dry land after showing sufficient obedience and belief in God. Here, there isn’t much of a learning curve; Dew boy just has to go with the flow. As clever and visually amusing as it is, somehow I don’t think greenish liquid shooting out of the whale’s blowhole is a truly thirst-making payoff.

Another spot for the green product, “Rage,” released last week to promote this summer’s The Hulk, is majorly funny. It opens on an anger-management class (which is unfortunate, since the Jack Nicholson/Adam Sandler movie covered the same subject, but the film came and went in the time it took to produce the spot). As with many of the Marvel comic-book heroes, the Hulk is not like Superman—he is conflicted and complicated, and sometimes hurts people. So this long-term therapeutic setting is particularly apt, and in the circle of fellow sufferers, some are smirking like they still have plenty of repressed anger.

The leader calls on Bruce, who says, “I get angry, and I get into trouble. … I break stuff, but it takes a lot for me to lose control.” With that, his bottle of Mountain Dew falls over, and the green stuff pours all over the floor. Bruce loses it, turns into the enormous monster, the non-Lou Ferrigno Hulk, and starts destroying the room. “Obviously, we have more work to do,” the leader deadpans; after all, it’s not like he’s throwing a 150 billion-ton mountain around, as he’s known to do.

Another just-released spot, for Mountain Dew’s new summer-only “orange-ignited” drink, LiveWire, features two of the dimmest bulbs ever seen in Dewdom. In truly inept dude fashion, they stare, transfixed, at a Bug Zapper. “Why do they do that?” one asks monosyllabically. “Don’t they see that their friends are getting zapped?”

With that, they turn around and are drawn to a store window across the way that is filled with the new Dew drink, glowing orange, in a color so bold and psychedelic that it would seem, like the Hulk, to have been hit by a gamma bomb. Attracted like bugs to the light, they, yes, walk right into the glass wall. “That was stupid,” the other guys says. The spot is so rock-bottom simple in featuring only the hypnotic, igneous glow of the radioactive-looking drink that there’s a flash of intelligence behind the stupidness.

And perhaps that’s the ticket with these dumb dudes: They are just earnest lunks who blow the lid off pretentiousness. And, if you want to get pretentious, in their dumbness, they sometimes manage to offer a quiet satire on American culture.