Rob Walker | Essays

This Joke’s for You

In Mike Judge’s movie Idiocracy, an average and unambitious guy played by Luke Wilson hibernates as part of a military experiment and wakes up 500 years later. The America he wakes up to has devolved radically: inarticulate citizens stare slack-jawed at the base entertainments of the Violence Channel, the president is a former wrestler who presides over monster-truck gladiator spectacles in a rundown arena and the crops are dying because they are being irrigated with a sports drink called Brawndo, “the Thirst Mutilator.” It’s very funny. It’s also, if you happen to think about it, kind of depressing.

Some present-day brands exist in this dystopian future; Starbucks and Fuddruckers are there, although they have changed in ways that really can’t be described here. The dubious Brawndo attained its dominant role simply by buying the government agencies that might thwart its power and by marginalizing the use of water by corporate fiat. Witless consumers parrot the drink’s advertised inclusion of electrolytes as the best thing about it — though they clearly don’t know what electrolytes are or why they are supposed to be good. Of course, that is all made up. There is no Brawndo. Or there wasn’t until last November, when this instrument of consumer-culture satire joined actual consumer culture: 10,000 cases and counting of Brawndo have sold online or via convenience stores in the Northeast and other regions.

This happened not because of a movie-studio marketing brainstorm. (Twentieth Century Fox released the film briefly and without much enthusiasm in 2006 before tossing it to the DVD market, where it has gained a cult following.) It happened because of an “Idiocracy” fan in Oakland named Pete Hottelet. A graphic designer with very particular pop-culture tastes, Hottelet has started a business devoted to bringing to life certain products from movies. His business is called Omni Consumer Products, a name borrowed from the fictional megacorporation in “Robocop.” In addition to Brawndo, Omni has acquired from Paramount the license to market Sex Panther, a made-up cologne from the Will Ferrell vehicle “Anchorman” (“150% More Awesome Than Any Other Cologne. Ever.”).

Hottelet’s manufacturing partner is Redux Beverages. Redux was founded in 2006 by Jamey Kirby, a former software engineer, and is best known for a real energy drink called Cocaine. Cocaine received a lot of attention before “we had some issues with the F.D.A.,” Kirby says. He pulled it out of stores, and while he was retooling the marketing to address F.D.A. objections (he says it went back on the market in February), he heard from Hottelet — “an absolutely brilliant guy.” Hottelet explained the pitch: the drink had to contain electrolytes and had to be an alarmingly bright green, as in the movie.

“I watched ‘Idiocracy,’ and I was like, ‘O.K., we’re in,’ ” Kirby says. “Based on how things are going on in the world, and especially our country right now, this is a shoo-in.” He laughs as he says this, so I wasn’t sure what he meant. Are we already living “Idiocracy”? “Absolutely,” he says. “It’s all about overcommercialization.” The video ads on the Brawndo site, commissioned by Hottelet, feature members of Picnicface, a Canadian comedy troop, shouting hilariously over-the-top pitches: “It’s like a monster truck you pour into your face!” (The pitches actually owe quite a bit to videos Picnicface has made for a drink called Powerthirst — which doesn’t exist. I don’t think.)

It’s interesting to consider the Brawndo project as metasubversion, making it possible to express knowing amusement at the absurdity of American commerce by buying something. But maybe the message is simply that cautionary tales about dumbed-down culture are a futile endeavor: show us an argument that we will buy anything, no matter how idiotic, and we say, “Awesome — how much for that?”

Or maybe the lesson is something else altogether. “People want to know, ‘Who are you?’ ” Hottelet says. “I don’t know. Some guy.” This is a telling comment. Invariably the darkly comic sci-fi future is dominated by huge media conglomerates and overbearing corporations that deliver us into some idiocracy or other by force, and from above. But we know things haven’t turned out that way, and it’s now the wily and tech-enabled citizen who embarrasses companies and politicians or becomes a virtual celebrity or — why not? — makes Brawdo a tangible thing in the world. The stupid-funny future is all around us, and we can’t get enough of it, and we have Some Guy to thank. 

This essay was originally published in The New York Times Magazine, May 4, 2008.  

Posted in: Media

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