Can You Literally Sell a Fantasy?

Throughout its first five seasons, an occasional theme to Mad Men’s in-show ad campaigns’ has been selling men their fantasies and the corollary of selling women the promise of becoming a man’s fantasy. Season 1 had “Are you a Marilyn or a Jackie” (woman becomes fantasy) and the most recent season equated a Jaguar with a mistress (man buys fantasy). In each case the campaign is not about the thing being sold but, obviously, about the feeling you’ll have once you’ve bought it. While I haven’t yet confused Mad Men with real life, I do think the time spent watching imagined scenes in a fictional ad agency have made me more sensitive to the real ads I see.

For instance, it seems apparent that for an ad campaign predicated on making you’ll feel like you’re living out a fantasy to work it must not make that predicate explicit. No one buys a Jaguar actually thinking it’ll give them the feeling of having a mistress; they buy it (in Mad Men) because they have been convinced that it will give them the same feeling as having a mistress: excitement, virility, whatever. The challenge is communicating that message as a subtext and an ad campaign that made the message explicit — we’re going to sell you this thing but your sense that it will make you feel a certain way is actually a fiction that we’ve invented — would seem likely to be a loser.

And yet Kia is running a campaign (video below) that seems to me doing exactly that; in fact, it’s tag line is “A dream car, for real life”. In the ad we are taken into the dream of an ordinary shlub; he is driving some not-amazing car around a race track and Adriana Lima is in a bathing suit cheering him on and just waiting for him to pull into the winner’s circle; meanwhile, other supposed male fantasies (motley crue concert and giant hoagies) appear in the dream. The ad ends with the shlub somehow finding his wife in the dreamworld and returning us back to the shlub’s real and ordinary suburban bedroom where he is asleep in bed with a smile on his face. Also, the dream is the result of an accidental drugging.

I suppose I appreciate the honesty of the campaign — beautiful girls will be into you and your wife will doll herself up — but I wonder how well the message is working. Who would want to buy a car that lets you live out a fantasy only in your dream? If that’s all they’re saying selling me then shouldn’t I just get some more sleep.