Then poor prone “Betty” was given a Snickers bar to munch on, which turned her back into a regular 20something guy. “You’re not you when you’re hungry,” she was told.
A great campaign was born, and with it, White’s career as comic legend was reborn.
The “You’re not you when you’re hungry” formula got extended over the years, mostly successfully. A screechy, complaining Roseanne Barr getting smacked in the head the following year was a notable miss.
But last year’s spot, recreating clips from “The Brady Bunch,” with Danny Trejo and Steve Buscemi as Marcia and Jan in all of their teenaged rage, was a knockout. It hit the all the right pop cultural notes: surprising, nostalgic, and a little trashy. It even made my list for the top five commercials of 2015, because the surprising use of those notable angry guys back with the famously Bunched family, in their actual soaring California living room, was terrific.
So I was primed for more Snicker’s “Hungry” greatness.
In this year’s iteration, actor Willem Dafoe, (semi-known for playing quietly loony characters and/or Jesus Christ, not angry guys) cross-dresses as Marilyn Monroe, recreating that iconic scene from Billy Wilder’s 1955 movie, “The Seven Year Itch.” Dafoe, in earrings and a bad brown wig, is shown wearing the famous white halter dress, his billowing skirt blowing up around his legs and large white panties, as he stands over a subway grate, wearing Marilyn’s same high-heeled slingbacks. He’s having a hissy fit with the director about having to wear high heels on a subway grate. I hadn’t thought of that before, and it is a funny line.
But overall, I was put off by the creepy insensitivity of the spot. It’s downright depressing that so much time, energy, money, and terrific technological razzle-dazzle was poured into this production, when the concept is dicey and dated at best. (To begin with, does this 60-year-old movie scene resonate with the kids?)
The spot opens with the camera panning up Dafoe’s pale, scrawny, legs, a shot engineered for belly laughs. In director Wilder’s subsequent film “Some Like it Hot,” the idea of men hobbling around in high heels and hats and dresses was seen as hilarious. That was back in 1959. The idea of men in drag has been part of drama since before Shakespeare’s day, of course, and the joke of showing ungainly males dressing as women continues apace up until this day, especially in England and in old Budweiser commercials.
But in light of Bruce Jenner’s public transition to Caitlyn, the Oscar nominations for the movie “The Danish Girl,” and the popularity of a TV series like “Transparent,” to name a few, the issue of gender transitioning has not only come out of the closet, but it is now better understood as painful and genuine. It certainly seems regressive to go back to the old drag days for the sake of an easy joke.
Stuff like this has backfired at the Super Bowl before. Back in 2007, with agency TBWA, Snickers ran a SB spot that showed two male mechanics accidentally kissing, and then shrieking in mortification, pulling out their chest hair, to prove their manliness. It was pretty stupid, and received widespread backlash from both outraged gay groups and conservative Christians. Before that, in 1997, a spot for Holiday Inn tried to make the point about the hotel chain’s “major improvements” by showing a sexy transsexual woman, complete with a new nose and fake boobs, attending a high school reunion. It was famously panned.
But even if you think this criticism is overly PC, since the spot is a take-off on a well-known movie scene, there’s another huge problem with using Marilyn Monroe as the diva who needs a candy bar to calm her into compliance.
Certainly, she is an enduring icon, recalled as a sex symbol (and the purveyor of underwear), But at the same time, she is seen as a tragic, misunderstood figure, forced by the studio into these repressive but sexy dumb blonde roles. (Remember Elton John’s “Candle in the Wind.”) As such, she is remembered for her troubled private life, and her struggles with depression, unstable moods, and addiction, and being ministered to (and drugged) by a stable of psychiatrists. She famously died in 1962, at the age of 36, from an overdose of barbiturates. The jury is still out on whether it was a suicide.
So the idea of “Miss Monroe, eat a Snickers. You get a little cranky when you’re hungry,” is a huge misfire, and no joke.
Dafoe gets transformed back to Marilyn in the movie through a process that had to be hugely costly. It’s well-done, but plainly cringeworthy. Then it’s followed by the end joke, a wasted cameo with comedian Eugene Levy, playing the fan operator who says “This will never make the cut! Morons!”
With this iteration, perhaps the Snickers campaign has out-meta-ed itself. What was so delightfully comic in the past was the unexpected cleverness of using Liza Minelli and Aretha Franklin, two genuine divas, get turned back into regular dudes.
But the memory of Marilyn is too delicate and poignant. Would that a candy bar could have solved her madness.
And meanwhile, are you ready for some football?