The evolution of villains into good guys in television commercials.

Remember Joe Isuzu.  For those not watching TV in the late 80’s, Joe Isuzu was the insincere, slimy, greasy-haired, double-talking fictional spokesperson for the Isuzu line of cars and trucks.  Played to obsequious perfection by David Leisure, Joe Isuzu used the oiliest and most transparently hypocritical of demeanors to state such outrageous lies as “It has more seats than the Astrodome,” with the true statement superimposed at the bottom of the screen.  Over the four years that Joe Isuzu shilled for Isuzu cars and trucks, he became immensely popular, kind of the advertising equivalent of the villainous J.R. Ewing, Long John Silver or Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow.

Thus when Isuzu brought Joe Isuzu back for another run in 1999, Joe was suddenly a hero who uncovered and corrected the lies of others.  If my memory serves me well, in Joe’s last appearance the car he was driving zoomed by a Japanese car and then a German car.  Joe gives a wave and his trademark slimy smile to executive-looking gentlemen in each of the slower, poorer-handling cars.  Cut to one of the executives, who says in a thick German accent, “I hate Joe Isuzu.”  And we all know he hates Joe because he thinks Joe’s cars are such a better bargain for consumers.

The treacherous villain resurrected as good guy is a strategy employed by writers for centuries, especially in serial literature such as feuilleton novels, television series and movie sequels, which all chew up plotlines very quickly and whose authors are therefore always looking for new twists.  We are seeing a very weird version of this literary device unfold on TV today.  Whether as the oily salesman or just the irritating bringer of bad news to competitors, Joe was at least always selling Isuzus.  In contrast, Capital One, the credit card behemoth, has turned the bad guys who hurt customers into the customers themselves, or at least a good-naturedly oafish version of customers.

The “What’s in your wallet” series of ads for Capital One started with bankers depicted as Viking-like villains who pillaged their customers with high fees and charges.  Their attacks often involved elaborate mechanical devices, jimmy-rigged equipment and military techniques from before the age of gunpowder.  The elaborate havoc these Vikings could wreak on a middle class family’s vacation and other pleasures mimicked the low slapstick humor of the Three Stooges.

But for the last few years, these same Vikings—the former bad guys—have transformed into customers who use the Capital One card and enjoy all its benefits.  They do so in doltish, slapstick ways that end in breakage, bad manners or absurdities such as a goat at a ski lift.  Instead of the barbarian raiders, they are a more physical version of the Beverly Hillbillies, fish out of water in an upscale world of conspicuous consumption.

Joe Isuzu and the Capital One marauders share many things in common.  Both are comic villains, another sophisticated literary device that has a long history, for example in Rabelais, Cervantes and Twain.  Crudeness is also an important element in both these characters (taking the marauders as one) and leads to most of the humor.  In the marauders it’s overall crudeness, in Joe, it’s crudeness in the sell style.

13 comments on “The evolution of villains into good guys in television commercials.
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