hard sell

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Spooked by the ad break

Is TV advertising trying to give us all bad dreams? Sinister commercials are creeping up on us everywhere and doing their best to wig us out. Weird advertising has arrived and it doesn't just want to sell us something - it wants to make us paranoid.

In a NatWest TV plug for its business services, we see children straight out of The Midwich Cuckoos pick up buses while toy robots, three storeys tall, trundle down the high street. Shot in eerie black and white and with more than a nod to the dream sequence in The Company of Wolves, it relishes its weirdness with a disconcerting soundtrack and an unnerving young female voice-over which tells us, somewhat ironically, that NatWest helps us "to avoid the unexpected ... so you can sleep at night..."

The Vauxhall Vectra ad (heavily influenced by Tony Kaye's Dunlop masterpiece "Prepared for the unexpected") features strange young people with wild hair, futuristic headgear and silver lipstick looming up close, while the desert floods with water and whales - all to portentous music; finally, Tom "Dr Who" Baker's voice tells us that the Vauxhall Vectra is designed for the next millennium.

Pity the poor punter trying to make sense of it all. Like, funnily enough, the man in the Enigma lager ad, who wanders, increasingly lost and perplexed, through a desert of Dali-esque mirages: elephants on stilts, businessmen peering beneath suspended water, etc. A group of Africans turns into a waiter's face. "A glass of the unusual, sir?" he intones, baring his teeth. Or the Smirnoff ad in which an outwardly respectable world glimpsed through a bottle of vodka takes on a more sinister shape...

This style is perhaps more understandable for alcoholic beverages, where after all, a certain kind of altered state is part of what the punter is buying - but cars and banks, whose stock in trade has always been reliability? Weird advertising seems keen to cash in on the public's fascination with the unexpected, demonstrated by the popularity of TV shows like The X- Files and the rise of New Age sci-fi irrationalism, at the same time as exploiting the audience's discomfort with it. The world may be a scary place, weird ads tell us, but these nice big corporations and their products will look after you, while their nightmarish advertising does your dreamwork for you - allowing you "to sleep at night".