Advertising spokespeople are supposed to be likable. That’s one of the main qualifications for the job — to present the viewer/listener with someone they have positive feelings about in hopes that those feelings will rub off on the product. If you think about some of the great celebrity endorsers of the past such as Ed McMahon, Bill Cosby, Karl Malden, Michael Jordan, Florence Henderson, pre-double homicide O.J. Simpson, etc., most of them were highly charismatic, or at least affable. The same goes for the anonymous and not-yet-famous actors who tend to get cast in commercials. When it comes to putting disarming folks on our TV screens, in our magazines and so forth, the advertising industry usually gets it right. But not always.
Sometimes commercials are populated by people that just rub you the wrong way. The reasons we have for taking a dislike to somebody we don’t know based on a 30-second impression are wide-ranging. It could be their voice, the clothes they wear or their hair. Sometimes they have a face that you just want to smack. The German language actually has a word to describe that latter concept: Backpfeifengesicht. The word translates as “a face in need of a fist.” (Leave it to the Germans to invent a word to express this idea.)
It goes without saying that Backpfeifengesicht is largely in the eye of the beholder, but it’s something that we’ve all seen. What follows is a look at some notable examples of Backpfeifengesicht rearing its oh-so-punchable head in advertising over the years. Please note that The Marketing Smart Aleck will not be held liable for any cracked computer screens, smashed smartphones or knuckle injuries that may result from you reading any further.
The guy in this 5-Hour Energy spot appears to be making an effort to contort his face into the most fist-worthy expressions after every statement he makes. Since he seems to be trying so hard to accomplish Backpfeifengesicht, we’re happy to show him first:
If there was a world championship awarded for Backpfeifengesicht, there can be no debate that Vanilla Ice would have owned the title belt for the past quarter-century*. The man has a face that makes you not just want to punch it, but to go after it the same way that an in-his-prime Muhammad Ali worked a speedbag.
Despite that, and despite (or probably because of) Vanilla Ice’s current status as a cultural joke, he has managed to find his way into some commercials. This spot for South African beer Castle Lite wisely does not feature any closeups of VI’s mug, but even from a distance, the infuriating glow of Backpfeifengesicht shines through.
The UPS “Whiteboard Guy” from a few years back is a borderline case. He’s definitely smug, a little too-cool-for-school (especially off-putting for a guy whose main talent appears to be drawing stick figures with a brown marker) and has a bit of Backpfeifengesicht going on in the screen capture below. But, ultimately, it was his ponderous hairstyle that made him unlikable. In the final analysis, more people would probably rather punch his barber than him.
Speaking of ridiculous hair, most people who watched TV in the late 1980s and early 1990s will probably remember these Encyclopædia Britannica commercials with the smarmy blond-headed guy who radiated Backpfeifengesicht:
Before anyone objects to citing a minor as someone people might want to punch, it should be pointed out that the “kid” in that ad was an actor named Donavan Freberg who was an adult when that spot was made. And even if his face weren’t enough to inspire rage, how about the pretentiousness of an encyclopedia publisher that insisted upon spelling part of the set’s name as “Encyclopædia?”
Of course, these examples just barely scratch the surface of the long history of Backpfeifengesicht in advertising. This could very well be the first post in an ongoing series. If you can think of any notable examples that were left out this time around, please let me know about them in the comments section. Until then, keep those fists clenched.
*The one name that comes to mind as a dark horse challenger to Vanilla Ice would be former MTV DJ Kevin Seal, but we’d still give Mr. Van Winkle the edge.