Like many preteens prescribed heavy-duty amphetamines, I had difficulty sleeping. This manifested in a variety of ways, but the most common was sneaking out of my room to watch my favorite late-night channel, The Weather Channel, until I passed out from exhaustion on my family’s Southwestern-patterned sofa. (For an experience enhancer while reading this essay, please see this video).
The year was 2006, and I was twelve (sorry, old people). I had just started middle school, and, frankly, I was not having a good time. In addition to being put on high-strength narcotics, I was beset with a kind of permanent feverish anxiety.
So imagine, if you will, a vibrating preteen trying to command their cortisol levels, immersing themselves in the mundanity of forecasts interspersed with outdated Local on the 8s interludes courtesy of rural cable, when suddenly, interrupting a commercial for super-sharp knives that has already started, is this:
A woman of rather conservative appearance stares into the abyss like a military commander on a Maoist poster as she rubs what appears to be a glue-stick on her forehead. In the background, an Eisenmanian grid, and a voice, not quite human, but not quite automated, chants:
HeadOn: Apply directly to the forehead. HeadOn: Apply directly to the forehead. HeadOn: Apply directly to the forehead.
We cut to an image of the product in its packaging, while the voice-over tells us that
HeadOn is available without a prescription at retailers nationwide.
The whole event is over in fifteen seconds, but I remember thinking to myself, what the fuck did I just witness?
HeadOn was the Max Headroom Incident of the millennial generation. Every time I bring it up, people tell me that they were equally stunned the first time they saw it, and that they remember being so relieved when other people said that they had seen it, too. Companies from Geico to Old Spice to Skittles have all tried their hand at absurdist advertisements, but nothing they’ve produced even remotely achieves the eldritch creepiness of catching the Head On commercial while watching the Weather Channel at 2 a.m. in 2006.
Back when Head On was only airing during late night television on non-primetime networks, it gave the unsettling impression that one had just witnessed something they were not supposed to be witnessing, that aliens had descended to earth and hijacked the television networks with this fucked up commercial for a bullshit headache remedy consisting mostly of wax. Slowly but surely, it snatched up ad spots on primetime and daytime television and evolved into an annoyance; but for a brief, mystical time, the commercial would have been a proper subject for investigation by Mulder and Scully.
A combination of elements made the initial run of Head On so bizarre. First, it aired during times, and on networks, with very low viewership, borrowing a mood from the existing isolation of being up late at night watching something probably very few people are watching, like The Weather Channel or infomercials on HGTV. Once the aura of the witching hour was no longer a part of the Head On experience, it quickly became charmless.
Second, the commercial would reappear in erratic fashion. Sometimes, a different commercial would already begin to air, when, about two to five seconds later, it would be cut off by the Head On commercial, as if it had swooped in from above to smite its 1-800-number competition. After seeing it the first time, it took a while before I saw the Head On commercial again—probably several days. This left me in a state of suspense, which allowed me to question my reality—had I really seen that weird commercial or was I just imagining it in the throes of an anxiety fugue? When I saw it the second time, at least I knew it was a real commercial. But beneath the surface I still questioned whether or not I, the 2 a.m. Weather Channel watcher in rural North Carolina, was still the only person who had witnessed it.
Finally, the commercial itself is just plainly weird—absurd, even. The aesthetics of the commercial were decidedly low-fidelity; it could have been made by anyone with a green screen and text processor. The local car dealership ads had a greater production value. The content of the commercial, its short duration, the loud, repetitive urgency of the brand name, the woman staring into space rubbing a glue stick on her forehead, were so freakishly unlike anything actual humans would reasonably produce to sell something—it gave the ad the eerie feeling of pirate television. It was an anti-advertisement; instead of trying to persuade the viewer to purchase a product, like pretty much every advertisement, it just yelled the product name over the image of a hypnotized actress. Rather than building a case for why someone should buy this confounding stick (or even telling viewers what the product does), it simply lobs a brick into the unsuspecting consciousness of the consumer.
Absurdist advertising is everywhere now. The Burger King and KFC Colonel have metamorphosed from folksy, gentlemanly mascots into big-headed horrors and misguided sex symbols, respectively. Skittles tried to sell Skittles by likening them to the plague. Geico, that ever-present representative of the weird commercial, recently started to slip in their old ad campaigns from the 1990s back into the mix. Old Spice did the “I’m on a Horse” campaign. The list goes on. Combined with brands pretending to have depression on Twitter, the indication is largely that brands are too online, and what was once an amusing wink wink nudge nudge to the strange world of internet culture is beginning to give off more of a Hello Fellow Kids vibe.
When fast food chains and insurance companies get weird, the sentiment, while at first amusing (at least, ten years ago it was), now elicits a dour reaction: oh, the Brands™ are at it again. Big brands can release absurdist commercials ’til the cows come home, but they’ll never truly be weird because, honestly, people know what Skittles are. Part of what makes Head On so weird, even to this day, is that it isn’t a brand that has been around in the public consciousness forever. When the ads debuted nobody knew what the fuck it was, and most people probably still wonder if it was ever a real product. It was a real product.
When HeadOn first aired, internet culture could still present itself as separate from mainstream culture. This was the age of Myspace and image macro-style memes—Facebook’s ubiquity and Twitter’s arrival were still a few years away. Now that everyone is online, the ubiquity of absurdist commercials is as good an indicator as any that in today’s world, internet culture is mainstream culture. In this context, one can’t really call these commercials surreal, much less absurd.
This doesn’t mean there aren’t pockets of internet culture that are still weird. Albert Camus wrote in The Myth of Sisyphus: “T[he] divorce between man and his life, the actor and his setting, is properly the feeling of absurdity.” For Camus, the way of dealing with the inherent absurdity of life was to accept it and live in spite of it. The need for people to embrace the cruel absurdity of life manifests itself in the internet cultures of nihilist memes and a branch of humor where a subject is thoroughly deconstructed, fragmented, decontextualized, or reconstructed in a way that turns upside down the very concepts of language, creation, and meaning. These are concepts that are, at their very core, antithetical to brands, which seek to construct a coherent and easily recognizable identity for the purpose of selling things. It’s why big brands will never be able to integrate with these subversive cultures and can only hope to appropriate them.
At the heart of Head On isn’t an argument as to whether it is genuinely absurd in the existentialist sense, but that it marks an important period of transition. Head On both inadvertently predicts (and outshines) today’s era of the ubiquitous weird commercial, but also serves to memorialize the dying gasps of a time when TV could be weird independent of the cultural forces of the internet. Head On (and the reasons it was so unsettling to those who viewed it) is materially tied to the medium of TV, from the financial necessities that determined its length and the oddball time slots in which it was aired, to the lo-fi aesthetics degraded beneath even the lamest 1-800 As Seen on TV commercial. Even the medium of an actual ad on TV becomes fainter and fainter now that advertisement becomes more about capturing personal data by way of surveillance, and TV itself is replaced by what are mostly ad-free streaming services. Head On was a cultural product of a certain time and a certain place. That time and place just so happened to be on the Weather Channel at 2 a.m. in 2006.