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    When TV Ads Dare to Depict a Grim Future

    Written by

    Brian Merchant

    Senior Editor

    As a rule, advertisers shy away from creating a bleak future for people to imagine consuming their products in—the ad world we know is one of shiny happy people, canned slogans, and three out of four experts recommending something to smiling satisfied patrons. But there are exceptions to every rule, and Chipotle's internet-winning anti-factory farm ad spot is one of them. 

    "Scarecrow" depicts a future in which food is prepared by robotic crows for the greenwashed Crowfood brand—sinister avian machines inject chicken with antibiotics and hoist dank containers filled with imprisoned cows to the slaughter. The city in which all of this happens is classic dystopia—polluted, congested streets, mechanized factories, and sad worker drones abound. Light breaks through the bubble at the end, when a lonely farmer packs up fresh, organic produce and begins spreading the word.

    It's an aggressive statement. Eating at Chipoltle means getting fresh food, while eating at its fast food competitors means ushering in a grim, colorless, dying world. And that's when advertisers turn to painting a dystopia—when a brand wants to emphatically convey an 'or else' message: This is what the world will look like if you keep buying the competition. 

    Though there are far fewer of them, because they're riskier, there's a fairly rich history of dystopian ads. They tend to make a more powerful statement in an arena crowded by fake grins, primary colors, and bad jokes. 

    A famous example is Apple's '1984' ad for its upcoming Macintosh computer.

    PCs are for the mindless transfixed masses, those who would happily give themselves over to Big Brother, the ad suggests, showing us a grey world where humans and cyborgs stare at propaganda in a dimly lit factory. Only Macintosh will free you from this dire and monotonous and thoughtless future. 

    Nissan's spot for its electric LEAF car is a more recent example of dystopian advertising, one that attempts to hit a bit closer to home. 

    The spot shows a bleak future that's on the brink of actually occurring—a globally warmed world. Here, the Arctic melts, forcing a polar to head to civilization. There, the bear hugs a LEAF driver who is doing his part to save his home. It's mawkish, and pretty blunt: if you don't buy a LEAF, you're killing the polar bears. If you do, they'll thank you.

    This 2012 Toyota ad apes Brave New World—in this dull future, everything is perfect, everything is the same. It's CGI and harmless, and to really live, you've got to, well, drive a Toyota. 

    This 1989 McEwan Lager ad is an exception to the exception to our rule. 

    The ad shows a dystopian hell-future where the only escape is cool, refreshing beer. And early techno, I guess. 

    Dystopian themes are a bit more common when advertisers aren't trying to sell a product, but a cause. Environmental groups, for example often use grim-future themes in their ad spots. The most famous example of the genre is probably Keep America Beautiful's 1971 "The Crying Indian." 

    The world is fast becoming an unrecognizable wasteland, and that infamous solitary tear shows how far we've come from the simple, humble, casually racist life of the past. 

    There's one other ad genre that routinely apes the dystopian: political campaign ads. This pro-Santorum "Obamaville" spot, which aired just last year, is a pretty classic example. 

    Vote for Obama, and America will crumble into a barely-recognizable (but also totally familiar) dystopia. Playground carousels will creak in the wind, streets will be abandoned, and literally everything will be color-bleached and filthy. 

    But even that has nothing on "Daisy," easily most dystopian ad spot of all time. 

    "We must love each other, or we must die," Lyndon Johnson intones after a nuclear blast obliterates a sweet smiling child. Vote for Johnson, or vote for a future where this happens. It's not just dystopian—it's downright apocalyptic. 

    Clearly, futuristic alarmist ads can be effective; the Chipotle spot is garnering heaps of acclaim, even from the typically cynical corners of the commentariat. Going dystopian can pay off, especially if the company can put its money where its mouth is. Making us fearful of the future, it turns out, can be a primo time to sell us stuff.