In late 2007, an advertising agency based in Manchester produced what is generally recognised to be the most horrifying and ruinous shampoo commercial in human history. For legal reasons the agency can’t be named, and all copies of the film have been incinerated, but this is what they made. The ad takes us to a chilly, distant world, some dwarf planet at the furthest edge of the Sun’s ebbing warmth. We swoop over its computer-generated desolation: the ground here is rocky and fractured, broken up by cliffs like rough quartz. Everything is dry and utterly lifeless, but still somehow greasy; there’s an unhealthy gleam to these scars, as if some hideously organic slime were seeping through, as if the planet itself were alive, housing in its fizzling core an alien intelligence driven to madness by ten billion lonely years on the crumbling edge of infinity.
As we look up something appears in the near distance: an enormous tower, cylindrical, made from what looks like cast iron. There was life here once: someone came to this planet and built this structure, but the thing’s rank with age. The visitors, and their reasons for coming, must have died out while we on Earth were still toothy fish gulping our way through the boiling seas. But the camera keeps on rising, and the truth rises up from your stomach like vomit. This isn’t a tower at all. It’s a follicle, a single human hair. We’re on a scalp. The wind blasts like a solar storm, and the dandruff is torn from the surface of this planet to float sparkling through the void, as cold and indifferent as the furthest stars. This shampoo commercial generated a record number of complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority. By the time the dust settled there had been eight lawsuits, two involuntary committals to a psychiatric facility, and one six-month prison sentence. The agency went bankrupt shortly afterwards; so did the shampoo manufacturer. Fredric Jameson describes the discursive field of postmodern society as one of “heterogeneity without a norm,” but even in these liberated times one unbreakable rule remains: Thou Shalt Not Show Dandruff On TV.
This piece appears in full in The Lifted Brow #27. Get your copy now.
Sam Kriss is a writer and dilettante living in the UK.