Trident commercial lays out worst argument in sales history


The fanciful commercial above is for Trident Layers, a chewing gum that contains a layer of mouthwash or food coloring or industrial epoxy or something in the middle. The candy industry is a fresh, minty mystery to me, but I assume now is not a great time to try to sell a new kind of gum to adults. Perhaps for that reason, Trident has broken the standards set by Juicy Fruit* and Doublemint** to go with something funny—sorry, “funny.” Like many commercials, this one is essentially a comedy sketch. Unlike many commercials, it is predicated on the viewer believing that the product being sold is not worth the money.

The ad follows a comic conceit that I’m going to call One Person Is Crazy. It’s a go-to premise for advertisements, first-time sketch writers and Saturday Night Live, by which one character says or does a series of crazy things while the other characters react to him. The reaction turns out to be what makes it work, as evidenced by A) the consistent failure of the Everyone Is Crazy sketch, and B) the contribution to this ad made by the kids, whose barely-contained enthusiasm makes it a breezy skit and not a scene of domestic despair.

In the One Person Is Crazy sketch, the non-crazy characters act as a proxy for the audience; their reaction mirrors ours. In this case, having both the wife and the kids present captures our reaction nicely. On the level of the narrative, we are surprised by the Crazy Person’s behavior, like the wife. At the next level of critical alienation, as the watchers of a commercial, we are delighted by his antics, like the kids. In technical terms, they are an intratextual spectatorial model, but to get bogged down in dramaturgy like that is to miss the bright green plastic center of this commercial.

A middle-aged man returns to his family to announce that he has gotten a raise. “Really?” his wife says, thinking she might finally unpack the small duffel she’s kept in the back of her car for the last year, “how much?” The man proudly reports that he has been given twenty thousand…packs of Trident Layers. It’s exactly like something that is plausible, except for a short qualifier at the end! Like most sketch comedy characters, his autism prevents him from interpreting his wife’s facial expressions/tone of voice, and he continues exulting as she stands, crestfallen, and considers the chain of events that led her to this man. Fin.

Like any good One Person Is Crazy sketch, this ad turns on an absurd proposition that the other characters recognize, but which the crazy person takes as completely reasonable. In order for us to find it funny, we have to recognize that no sensible person would want to be paid in gum. But let’s unpack that premise for a moment.

Dad is crazy because he thinks a raise of 20,000…packs of gum is great news. If he were a slightly less insane gum lover, he might realize that it would be better to just get money, which he could then freely convert to gum or, if it turned out later that he needed it more than he thought, food for his family. But he is so confident that he’d just spend all his money on Trident Layers anyway that he’s thrilled to get the gum directly and save a step.

Now we come to the fundamental assumption that makes this commercial work: given the choice between having Trident Layers and having money equal to the price of Trident Layers, a sensible person would rather have the money. That’s a completely reasonable idea, but it’s not exactly where you want to lead your audience in this context. In this context, we are trying to get people to exchange money for Trident Layers. The premise that a man has possibly ruined his family by doing so is not where we want to start.

This may be the first commercial in history that is explicitly predicated on the product for sale not being worth the money. Interestingly, the comedy is not in any way dependent on the substance of the man’s raise. He could have been offered 20,000…anythings* and the gag would still work—just show us gum at the end. The only thing that doesn’t work in this context, besides money, is Trident Layers. The writers’ natural inclination to put the product at the center of the commercial has turned it into a 30-second satirical argument against chewing gum. In one hand I hold a dollar. In the other I hold a new brand of chewing gum. Which would you like? First, think about your family.

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  1. “Like most sketch comedy characters, his autism prevents him from interpreting his wife’s facial expressions/tone of voice, and he continues exulting…”
    So true… so annoying. This is part of almost all humorous dramatic writing, not just sketches.

  2. The “inside joke” here is that the economy is so bad that an employee might well exult over having received 20,000 packets of Trident, rather than one, wretched pink slip.

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