This is an ad I saw online one day for Alpo dog food. It is a very compelling ad, although not in the sense of making me want to purchase Alpo dog food. If I were to have a dog1 I don’t really know what they would eat,2 but Alpo is owned by Nestlé, who are evil or something, so the dog wouldn’t eat Alpo. Thus for me this ad was doomed to failure from the very beginning3 but it still managed to take up permanent residence in my thoughts.
We learn from the ad that Alpo presents “The Bark Heard ‘Round the World.” Presumably with respect to this movie4 someone named Al is telling us (and this is a direct quote from Al): “★★★★!” Apropos of this, we can only assume,5 the ad also notes that “there’s a new breed on the rise: real dogs!” As we take all this in, we are judged by a large disappointed brown dog, or at least slightly more than half of a large disappointed brown dog. The frame cannot contain the full extent of this dog’s disappointment. To complete the tableau, two dogs on a blurry field of green are running towards us in the upper left of the ad, and in the lower right all is white.6
There is a lot to chew on here.7 I’m not sure I can even do justice to it all, but it is my duty to try, because I’m pretty sure I’m the only one who has spent more than five minutes thinking about this ad, and that’s including all the people who worked on it, except maybe whoever had to snap pictures of the dog until they got one that looked judgmental enough, and the dog, who had to pose for the pictures.
I want to start with Al. I think Al must be the dog that is judging us.8 Given that Al9 is a dog and that the translation of his thoughts into text lies entirely at the mercy of this ad’s copywriters, it’s a little surprising how moderate Al is with his praise of this movie. Four stars is pretty good, and that exclamation point certainly suggests a degree of excitement, but surely we could have gone up to five stars, couldn’t we? Ebert used a four star rating scale, but Amazon.com uses five, along with pretty much everyone else. As long as we’re putting words in Al’s mouth, why not make the praise as effusive as it can get? Is the ad trying to piggyback on the cachet of Ebert himself? Are we using the Ebert scale to suggest that Al is a genuine movie critic and that we can trust that his opinion on the merits of this movie has been arrived at in some informed, systematic, unbiased manner rather than simply having been bought and paid for by Alpo? And if this is Al’s judgment, why does he look so disappointed? Does he know that we aren’t going to click on his ad? Is he understanding, in far more detail than a dog ought ever to be made to understand, just how little we care about his film criticism? Behind those mournful eyes is he thinking to himself how we will inevitably ignore this recommendation, just like we will ignore his recommendations to watch L’Année dernière à Marienbad and Out 1, noli me tangere, instead choosing to line up like drones for the latest Terminator movie?
It is too depressing to contemplate, so we must soldier on. What is this movie that comes so highly recommended? Since all we really have to go on is Al’s review, and, let’s face it, Al’s a dog, and even the most sophisticated dog reviewer is still colorblind, and thus probably not the utmost authority on any movie that has been made since we figured out how to film in color, we would expect that this movie’s title is going to do its best to try to draw us in. Al’s word alone won’t be enough. So Alpo names the film “The Bark Heard ‘Round the World.”
That is a very odd phrase to attempt to seize on for a vaguely punny movie title. It is, of course, familiar – we have all heard of the shot heard ’round the world.10 But beyond its status as a familiar phrase, it’s at best somewhat un-evocative and at worst suggestive of a depressing (or at least perplexing) message in this context. We all know there was a shot heard round the world; in fact, we know that that shot, whatever it was, was the shot. But nobody knows which shot is the shot. Is it the shot commemorated in Emerson’s “Concord Hymn” which began the American Revolutionary11 War? Emerson coined the phrase, but the phrase stuck much more than his choice of shot, because when one hears “shot heard ’round the world,” that shot isn’t the only one that comes to mind. Is it the shot that killed Franz Ferdinand?12 Is it New York Giants outfielder Bobby Thomson’s home run in a 1951 baseball game?
I’m not sure any of those are the sorts of things I want to see echoed in some kind of dog food movie. I don’t really have a clear picture of what an Alpo-sponsored dog-centric take on the beginning of World War I would look like, but the sort of mood I would have to be in to want to find out is probably not a mood that is conducive to buying dog food or to clicking on an advertisement. Surely there must have been some sort of stock phrase that Alpo could have dog-ified for its movie’s title that isn’t evocative of someone getting shot and subsequent massive bloodshed.13
We have again reached a depressing note so we must shift focus again. Remember that “there’s a new breed on the rise: real dogs!” How this is relevant, or what it is relevant to, is anyone’s guess, but we can give the ad some leeway here because at this point I feel like I’m in some kind of nightmare world where dream logic is the only logic, so anything makes sense.14 Since the ad must be trying to interest me, to provide something compelling to get me to click on it, I’m supposed to feel some kind of positive emotion about the fact that real dogs are on the rise.
But I don’t know what this means: how is “real dog” a breed of dogs? Are we selectively breeding blue collar dogs, salt of the earth dogs, good old “bite intruders and hunt non-fancy animals like raccoons rather than fancy animals like foxes” dogs with each other to create the dog equivalent of the presidential candidate15 with whom you would want to have a beer?16 Does Alpo think I am fed up with hoity-toity fancy-ass fake dogs, all these Poodles and Corgis and so on mincing around and acting like they’re better than real dogs? Class warfare is a gas, but cashing in on it to sell dog food smells off to me.17 Dog breeds are breeds – they’re made up of genetic differences, like… ears.18 A breeding program to create a breed described with the social status term “real dogs” sounds kind of dog-master-racey to me the same way a breeding program to create humans with genetic characteristics is pretty master-racey. You’re not supposed to be breeding dogs into social classes any more than you’re supposed to be breeding people into races! Dogs shouldn’t have social classes any more than people should! Rather than trying to create the dog Übermensch19 we’re trying to create a dog Ted Nugent. Are the two dogs in the background examples of the “real dogs?” They’re blonde, and that wide open grass field they’re frolicking in sure looks like Lebensraum to me. If they’ve got blue eyes and respond to commands spoken in German, it’s time to smash open the “break glass in case of Hitler” emergency boxes that I imagine are set up all throughout Israel.20
Ultimately this ad compels me because it confuses me. Psychologists have a concept known as “theory of mind.” To have a theory of mind is to realize that other people have different minds than you: they think and believe and know different things. As far as I know, we pick this up at least by the time we are 2-3 years old, usually, but it doesn’t stick with us all the time, as illustrated by this tweet:
Nothing better than a garage sale sign dated “TODAY” to demonstrate someone’s complete failure to perceive a world outside their own head.
— Sean Tejaratchi (@ShittingtonUK) April 20, 2013
When I encounter things like this ad which are deeply confusing to me, I wonder what sort of minds the ad’s creators are attributing to the audience. Are they imagining that people will see a shadow of a recognizable phrase, a bunch of stars, a dog, and some sort of affirmation of “real dogs,” and form a positive impression strong enough to get them to click the ad? What is the kind of person who would do that? It’s not me, at least, and I wonder what it is I’m missing that the advertisers hope is present in everyone else.
I found the movie, by the way. I haven’t watched it and I don’t think I will. The chances of ruining my confoundedness, of undergoing demystification, are too high. It would be like finding out Santa Claus isn’t real all over again.21 But if you are less worried, here you go:
- Ideally a puppy – I’m thinking Labrador or Border Collie or Husky… maybe three puppies… [↑]
- Maybe vegan dog food? [↑]
- It’s a metaphor for life. [↑]
- We can assume it is a movie because we are urged to “see the movie,” I guess on Facebook, because the Facebook logo is there. [↑]
- Or pray, at least. [↑]
- Like in that scene in The Matrix where, briefly, there are not guns everywhere and everything is not a sickly shade of green, until, inevitably, there are guns everywhere and everything is soon back to the sickly shade of green. [↑]
- THAT WAS A DOG PUN. [↑]
- I never clicked on this ad, so if you are hoping for something more definite than wild speculation, I am glad that your expectations of me are so high, but it would behoove you to get in the habit of moderating those, lest you face many more disappointments like this. [↑]
- Last name: Po? As in Alpo? Don’t you think that’s a little on the nose, Alpo? [↑]
- It would probably be more accurate to call it “the shot heard and then subsequently and repeatedly heard of ’round the world.” [↑]
- The “revolutionary” war was actually a secessionist war, much like the American Civil War. Had it been a revolution, we would have chopped off King George’s head or otherwise toppled the English government when we won. That America persists in viewing its secession as a full-on revolution is quite suggestive. [↑]
- The archduke, not the band. But, if anyone ever guns down the band, the headlines will practically write themselves! [↑]
- Or baseball. [↑]
- This nightmare world is one that looks like it was generated by Google’s Deep Dream and its creepy penchant for dogs. [↑]
- Could a dog be president? Has anyone made a movie about that? [↑]
- Can dogs drink beer? [↑]
- Dog pun? Because dogs smell things…? No? Okay. [↑]
- I do not know a lot about dogs. [↑]
- The Überhund, if you will, or even if you won’t, because any sort of breeding program to create the Überwhatever is not really going to be asking anyone’s permission for anything, especially not my permission, since I’m a Jew and the only breeding programs we get any input on are “why don’t you find and marry a Nice Jewish Girl,” which is something every Jewish guy hears continually from his grandmothers, beginning right after puberty or his bar mitzvah, whichever comes first, and the breeding program to create a red cow and end the world, which would definitely form the backbone of my work in progress screenplay Jewpocalyse Now if Michael Chabon hadn’t already stolen it as a plot point for his book The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, which is a pretty good book if you’re looking for some contemporary fiction written by Jewish guys, which I’m sure you are because that stuff’s in really short supply. [↑]
- I do not know a lot about Israel. [↑]
- It took me a relatively long time to realize that Santa wasn’t real, considering that I’m Jewish. That will be the subject of a future blog post. [↑]