Dairy Queen recently came out with … a Valentine’s Day ad. The spot features the typical stuff of commercialized romance: an attractive couple, cuddled before a roaring fire; sighs of satisfaction; a general atmosphere of quiet contentment. And then the guy pulls out a long, red box, and the girl gasps with joy, and … well, see for yourself:
So: LOL, Valentine’s Day. (Really, LOL: The ad doubles as very good satire.) And while Dairy Queen’s ad might be a particularly intricate specimen of the genre, it isn’t alone in parodying the schmaltz and smarm of the ultimate Hallmark holiday. Hooter’s has been doing something similar (with its #shredyourex campaign, perhaps the most creative way the ad world has yet devised to combine office equipment and chicken wings). Doritos has, too. So has IKEA. So has Virgin Mobile. And McDonald’s. And Pizza Hut. Golden Corral, this week, has been running TV spots that feature Jeff Foxworthy offering guys the chance to “give her the gift she’s really gonna love.” (Spoiler: That gift is “ENDLESS PRIME RIB, BABY!”)
The ads are a twist on the more classic ironic-Valentine’s Day spot, which get their humor—not always, but very, very often—from not-terribly-subtle sex jokes. (Forks and spoons, in-flagrante-ed; strategically configured car seats; plays on the visual similarities between hearts and body parts; etc.)
But the satire ad (the LOLentine? the haha-lentine?) is different. In the guise of doing what an ad will always do—try to sell stuff—it pokes fun at the stale, often sexist conventions of the commercialized Valentine’s Day.
The V-Day parodies make fun of a long but not terribly proud history of ads that treat women as the objects of gift-giving and adoration and men as the givers of those things; that equate the spending of money with the having of sex; that blend commercialism and romance with a blitheness that will surely make future generations cringe and laugh and side-eye.
Ads, for example, like this:
What Dairy Queen is also making fun of, though, is a subtler kind of sexism. The ads that suggest that buying a woman a Valentine’s Day present will make her “swoon,” and let her guard down, and otherwise capitulate to the gift-giver’s—ostensibly her boyfriend’s or husband’s or date’s—desires. The logic is gross for obvious reasons, but it’s the most common message of Valentine’s Day advertising. And it’s definitely not relegated to a Mad Men-ian past. A recent Valentine’s-themed email from Virgin America and Teleflora came with the subject line “Make Her Swoon.” The toll-free number for the diamond importer Mervis is “1-800-HERLOVE.”
The messages contained in those marketing ploys are common to the point of banality. They reflect bits of logic that have become so fully dissolved into the culture at large that they have become largely invisible. (Every kiss begins with Kay.) But if ads are able to reflect the collective psyche the way few other things can, then these silly specimens are, in their way, revealing. They suggest a culture that proffers competing messages when it comes to that most enduring and confusing and human of things: romance. They suggest that love—beautiful, ineffable, ephemeral—can’t be bought, and also that it totally can. They suggest that love is transcendent, and also totally transactional.
And now! They suggest a culture that is arguing with itself, fighting back against all the mixed messages. With the help, yes, of Dairy Queen! And also Golden Corral! And also Hooters! Which are, definitely, restaurants that are trying to capitalize on Valentine’s Day even though they have no jewelry or flowers or lingerie to sell. But which are, on the other hand, deciding that there’s market value in making fun of the Valentine’s Industrial Complex. They’ve had it with the gross messages, and the mixed ones. They’re sick of ads that suggest that love can be bought and sold. They think the rest of us are, too. They may well be correct. Here’s a thing I never thought I’d write, but: yaaas Dairy Queen.