Going to extremes

The decade’s most overused ad cliché sounds a little stupider each time it recurs.

Marketing Magazine, July 21, 1997   

What isn’t extreme? There’s hardly a product left that hasn’t had the adjective grafted onto its marketing efforts.


Small Fry Snack Foods Inc.’s Humpty Dumpty potato chips have transmogrified into Extreme™ chips. The package offers one mind-bending claim after another: “Extreme™ Ridged Regular Nature Ondulées Humpty Dumpty™ Chips.”


“Extreme means never being disappointed!” the bag continues. “If this product isn’t extreme enough for you, mail the bag and its contents to the address below and we’ll send you three free bags worth of coupons.” What would constitute insufficient extremity from a bag of potato chips? “Aw, heck — no poison lizard or spring-loaded razor blades inside. I couldn’t have been killed eating these. Sorry, that’s just unacceptably tame.”


“Snack Canadian!” barks the bag’s copy, like an artery-clogging drill sergeant. “Humpty Dumpty is ‘extremely’ Canadian-owned.” Does that mean the people at Small Fry Snack Foods Inc. are extremely Canadian (overbearingly polite, aggravatingly well-behaved, malignantly modest)? Or does it mean they’re extreme about their ownership of Small Fry Snack Foods Inc., guarding the potato-processing plants with guns and vicious dogs and regularly dancing on the factory roof, shrieking, “It’s mine! All mine!” “Extremely Canadian” may mean something similar to the description of the chips themselves: “Extreme Regular.”


Molson has its extreme beer/sports promotion, where lucky winners get to do heart-quickening things like hang around near the Stanley Cup or The Grey Cup until the winner of whichever final they’re watching claims it.


If Molson wanted to be really extreme, of course, they’d order contest winners to keep the trophy away from the players as long as possible, while telling the players to get the prize from the luckless contestants at all costs. Maybe arm both sides with axe handles, just to make it more extremely interesting. The whole concept behind the Molson contest makes the mind reel: winners get to be extreme spectators, viscerally involved in not being involved at all. How extremely post-modern; there’s a popular-culture PhD thesis in there someplace.


The nadir of all this extreme extremism is using “extreme” to sell water. The ocean in a storm, a flooding river or a tidal wave are all examples of water that’s “extreme.” But there’s not enough water in even the jumbo-sized bottles of Naya or Evian to whip up an irked puddle — a raging sea is out of the question. The product is extremely wet, but that’s kind of lame as a selling point.


In the 1960s and ’70s, everything was “new and improved.” As Rob Reiner’s All In The Family character wondered aloud while unpacking groceries, “What were we using before, ‘old and lousy’?” In the 1980s, marketers decreed “let there be ‘light’” (or, in its more common variation, “lite”). Did that mean we’d previously been consuming excess poundage with the weighty, the ponderous and the heavy? Or had everything prior to the advent of “lite” been “dark”? Now that we’re well past the halfway hump of the 1990s and on a downhill zip to the turn of the century, we’re hip-deep in the “extreme.”


Extreme’s rise to irksome ubiquity started with sports, as fringe pastimes like mountain biking, skateboarding and snowboarding were mashed together in a common category called — you guessed it — “extreme.”


ESPN2, the 24-hour cable sports channel in the U.S., knew a good thing when it saw one. Here’s a big, fat wad of 18-to-34s with oodles of discretionary income. Highly prized but hard to reach, they like to think of themselves as rebellious. Package and present some sports many of them are already doing. Make sure you have enough different events to maintain an endless round of competition: snowboarding segues into barefoot waterskiing, BMX bike stunting hands its audience off to sky surfing, and so on.


Extreme sports started turning up in advertising eager for a shred of hipster-doofus cachet: bungee jumping was in every second commercial. Ads that didn’t feature bungee-jumping had snowboarders. Mountain biking and sky surfing filled the remaining gaps.


And that word “extreme.” How copywriters loved it, and still do. Says nothing, implies so much. Let’s attach it to some non-sports stuff: extreme food, extreme music, extreme cars. Hey, this is easy: extreme banking, extreme collect calling, extreme toilet-bowl cleaning, extreme dog-walking. It hardly even registers anymore.


Each time you crank the stakes higher, you create another yawn among the vanguard who’ve already taken that ride and find its thrill factor diminishing exponentially with each repetition. Each time you hook “extreme” to a product, it means a little less and sounds a little stupider. Marketers long ago ran out of things that could lay any kind of legitimate claim to being “extreme.” Now the word’s getting soldered onto products in unintentionally hilarious combinations.


The laws of dilution and diminishing returns have long ago destroyed “extreme.” The only kinds of extremity it’s even close to are “extremely overused,” “extremely tired” and “extremely annoying.”


The only problem is that advertising folks have been extremely slow to figure that out.