"Apply Directly to the Forehead"

The Los Angeles Times' Dan Neil recently took a look at one of the more surreal TV ads running now: HeadOn. If you've seen it, you know what we're talking about.

Theoretically speaking, there is no bottom to the pop culture barrel, particularly as regards TV advertising. There will always be an ad that will sink lower and annoy more, always another commercial that will manage to limbo under our lowest expectations.

Wait . . . no . . . there is a bottom of the barrel! And welcome to it. I give you the ad for HeadOn, which has to be the worst, most irritating TV commercial ever made, that ever could be made. Compared to HeadOn, the awful Realcore diet pill ad ("Get rid of stubborn belly fat!") is a soaring aria to the nobility of Man.

The ad is simplicity itself, if simplicity reminds you of North Korean propaganda. A woman rubs her forehead with what appears to be a roll-on deodorant while a female voice shouts: "HeadOn, apply DIRECTLY to the FOREHEAD! HeadOn, apply DIRECTLY to the FOREHEAD! HeadOn, apply DIRECTLY to the FOREHEAD! HeadOn is available without a prescription at retailers nationwide!" This is the 15-second spot. Because of the economics of basic cable advertising, the ad will often run back to back, so you get 30 seconds of "HeadOn, apply DIRECTLY to the FOREHEAD!" etc.

This is the sort of thing that sends people into bell towers with rifles.

When I first saw this commercial, I thought I must be missing something. What, exactly, does the product do? It appears to be a balm of some kind, but for what ailment? How many people suffer from forehead pain? Perhaps it was for headaches. And then I began to spy a certain kind of genius about the ad. A headache remedy ad that causes migraines. Brilliant!

Indeed, I began to wonder if it wasn't maximally schlocky on purpose, the TV ad equivalent of outsider art. It has, after all, the surreal vertigo of some crazy piece of installation video or a Japanese blast ad, the kind accused of producing seizures. I also suspected the ad was supposed to be funny. For instance, there is this big yellow animated arrow pointing vigorously at the woman's forehead, next to the words "apply directly to the forehead." Wait, I'm confused. Where do I apply it?

This had to be some sort of spoof, some piece of carefully calibrated irony like the Old Navy or the Enzyte (natural male enhancement) campaigns. Perhaps it was a viral anti-ad that escaped the confines of the web somehow to reach legitimate TV. At least I wasn't the only one baffled. A quick google of "Apply directly to the forehead" returned hundreds of pages, with many bloggers howling for medieval tortures to be applied to the person responsible.

He was easy enough to find. HeadOn is made by a company called Miralus Healthcare, which has offices in Canada and Florida (the actual product is manufactured in Chicago). With a couple of calls I managed to contact Dan Charron, vice president of sales and marketing. I asked if he was aware of the buzz.

"We first knew something was up when we found all the web pages devoted to the commercials," he said. Did he also notice people saying it was the most awesomely awful commercial they'd ever seen? That surprised him. "Nobody in the focus groups said the ads were annoying," he said, a statement that made me feel very sorry for focus groups.

But, come on, this is some kind of postmodern gag, right, a parody of the hyper-hard sell? Alas, no. "We didn't intend it to be a joke," Charron said. "The idea is that all our competitors are pills. Our product you apply directly to the forehead. That's what makes it different. We wanted for people to remember it. It's the only product that you apply directly to the forehead." He kept saying that. This is the ad you get when Rain Man is your VP of marketing.

What about the peculiar anti-style of the commercial? The ad—which cost "almost nothing," said Charron—is actually an edited version of an earlier advertisement, recycling the same footage of the head-rubbing woman. At the request of the Better Business Bureau, HeadOn removed claims that the product provides relief from headaches, migraines and headache pain with sleeplessness.

Thus expunged of any claim of efficacy or benefit, what remains is, I think, unique in advertising: a commercial that says nothing about the product except how to use it. And this is where it gets weird. Because of its strange and evocative emptiness, the "apply directly" sound bite is catching on. There's now a web site that has laid it down behind a hip-hop dance mix. Another has converted it into a ring tone. How soon before we see T-shirts emblazoned with the phrase, above a picture of a frosty mug of beer? It's a tribute to pop's alchemical power that the most uncool commercial in the history of TV has somehow been rendered, well, cool.

Meanwhile, Charron and his company are working on the next round of HeadOn commercials. If you want me, I'll be in the bell tower.


Enough is Enough

1. "Desperate Housewives"
2. Star Jones vs. Barbara Walters
3. The term "baby bump"
4. Will Farrell
5. Keith Richards
6. George W.
7. TV ads for Carls Jr.
8. Jessicas Simpson and Alba
9. "The Sopranos"
10. Brad and Angelina
11. Trailers telling us not to pirate movies
12. $5 bottles of water at baseball games
13. Paris Hilton
14. Drivers who go 4 mph in parking garages looking for a space when there's plenty just two levels up
15. MIA Suri Cruise
16. The cult of Oprah
17. The witch hunt for Barry Bonds
18. Paula Abdul
19. The argument that Angels and Demons is a better book than The DaVinci Code
20. The space shuttle
21. The "War on Terror"
22. CNN's Nancy Grace
23. Gene Shalit
24. The weathermen on the network morning shows
25. Kobe Bryant
26. Lifetime movies
27. US Weekly and its tabloid magazine ilk
28. Heat waves
29. Jay Leno
30. Blogs
31. Motorcycle riders who don't install a muffler
32. "My Super Sweet 16"


Summer movie haikus

Mission: Impossible III
Tom’s franchise is back
Gadgets, stunts, hot girls, Ving Rhames
Please pass the popcorn

X-Men 3Wolverine’s still cool
Ratner’s pic is pretty good
Singer’s were better

Pixar’s always good
But this one goes on too long
It’s no Toy Story

The Lake HouseTime travel romance
Poignant? Yes. Chemistry? No.
We blame Keanu

Superman ReturnsGood, but should be great
Margot’s Lois Lane’s better
We waited for this?

The Devil Wears Prada
Your worst nightmare boss
But worse and played by Meryl
Anne’s the next Julia