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Eat Me

Anybody who's seen the inside of an elementary school is familiar with the concept of "ruining it for everyone." You know you hated the kid who terrorized the classroom until your whole class had to spend the entire day huddled silently under the desk, shoeless, shivering, and doing assignments with a charred matchstick. Unless you were that kid. In which case everyone hated you.

On the other hand, there's always something that's better off ruined. Sometimes all that happens is that somebody demonstrates what a bad idea it was in the first place. Such is the case with one of the most irritating staples of television advertising: talking food.

I know I'm not the only one who has thought out these scenarios to their logical conclusion. Perhaps you, too, have imagined a food-shaped character shrieking in mortal agony between your own pitiless molars. I can only assume that the creative minds behind these concepts lack the imagination that you and I possess, because this kind of thing has been going on for decades. Apparently the "Dish of the Day," the self-promoting entrée in Douglas Adams's The Restaurant at the End of the Universe was, as a satirical device, too subtle (or too English, which is often mistaken for too subtle). That book appeared only a few years before the personification of consumer products reached its nadir with Banner. That brand name, you may recall, was represented by a puppet shaped like a roll of toilet paper. Banner's charmingly na├»ve pride in his own softness and texture is only explainable if one assumes his utter ignorance as to his purpose. In any case, whoever came up with the theory that you and I are more likely to purchase and consume food that talks to us deserves to be eaten alive by an advertising focus group. Actually, that marketing pioneer is probably dead already, but it would be worth it to resurrect his desiccated corpse and force it to extol its own tastiness.

In the meantime, someone needs to kill the idea itself. Slowly. Fortunately, someone is already doing just that.

For the past several years, we've been seeing ads in which animated M&Ms are either snarking Abbott-and-Costello-like at one another, or trying to avoid grisly extinction in some celebrity snacker's grinding maw. Some might think these spots are in poor taste. Personally, I enjoy them for that very reason.

Remember the one where Diedrich Bader is cheerfully flinging M&Ms down his amorally grinning cakehole while discussing family with a visibly discomfited Red? Or the one where a flirtation with Halle Berry abruptly turns sinister? My favorite is the time when Patrick Warburton walks in on an impromptu cannibalism party, and ends up confiscating three bags of candy from their anthropomorphic representations. "That's disturbing," the erstwhile Puddy observes, and I couldn't agree more.

What the commercials leave unsaid is the fact that talking food has always been disturbing. And they're right. What is the message, really? "I'm cute and friendly, and you should immediately take steps to terminate my existence?" "I'm so witty and urbane, and I'm looking forward to being broken down by your digestive system?" "I may be part of this complete, nutritious breakfast, but I can never be fulfilled until I'm swirling in the bowl?" Actually, that last one might explain the Banner thing.

At the same time, the creative folks behind the M&Ms campaign are still clearly communicating the fact that wanting to masticate likable characters is wrong, sick, evil, and gross. For which I applaud them.

Someone at M&M/Mars clearly isn't fully behind the idea, because they keep trying to distract their creatives with sweepstakes or new color votes or similar publicity stunts. But as soon as the corporate bosses turn their backs again, the ad agency sneaks out a spot wherein Bradley Whitford makes the grisly discovery that the chocolate he gave to his wife Jane Kaczmarek has been slowly suffocating in the top of the hall closet for months.

But none of these ads have gone as far as the ones featuring the female M&M, Green. Playing on the longstanding urban legend about the aphrodisiac powers of green M&Ms, several commercials have presented Green as a knockout sex-symbol, the stuff of pinups, clothing fetishes, and, most memorably, an accidental, once-in-a-lifetime glimpse at what lies beneath the green coating. It's funny, in a deeply twisted way, and it's going to make it difficult for anyone to straight-facedly personify anything edible ever again.

More recently, Snapple has gotten into the act with cheap-looking spots showing the various Snapple bottles engaged in human-like activities. Although these characters don't have mouths or hands, they still go for laughs by wiping out gruesomely on the sidewalk and spilling their contents everywhere. The message is clear: the 21st century has no place for cutesy consumables.

I don't know if M&Ms ads sell more M&Ms or not. I do know that they're effectively scuttling a lazy, sloppy, outdated advertising technique. Whatever they may have accomplished for their client, they're doing something much greater for the rest of the world: providing a future of food that knows when to shut up. If that's not worthy of some kind of humanitarian Clio award, I don't know what is.

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