A recent commercial for Arrowhead Sparkling Water opened with a young woman sipping on a bottle in an nondescript meadow.
“Arrowhead Sparkling is made with real spring water, fresh fruit flavors and refreshing bubbles…” She started to say, followed immediately by a quick cut to two half-naked models pouring the water over their bodies.
“You don’t need slo-mo models to sell it.”
“JUST WHAT’S REFRESHINGLY REAL,” the tag line then read, accompanied by a glamour shot of the product ending the advertisement.
Arrowhead explicitly states the confidence in their product without using models in a verbal sense; this language is juxtaposed with the clearly contradictory visuals of the two models. This method of oppositional language, entitled the Ironic Process Theory, has become increasingly common in fields of marketing, entertainment and politics.
I like to describe Ironic Process Theory as the classic “Don’t think of the elephants” mind game. Simply by stating that one should not think of elephants inserts the image of an elephant in one’s mind—language, both visually presented and verbally spoken, has a pesky hold on what we think.
Just by writing this paragraph, I myself am picturing elephants, and you, the reader, most likely had them pass through your head, even for a second. Elegantly put in the words of Fyodor Dostoevsky, “Try to pose for yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute.”
The act of Ironic Process Theory also popularized “The Game,” a popular mid-2000s mental exercise where the only way to lose “The Game” was to think of “The Game.” Any second you did not think of “The Game,” you were winning…but if you thought about winning “The Game,” you would lose.
Arrowhead Sparkling Water is one example in a long list of those who play with Ironic Process Theory (also known as White Bear Theory, based on Dostoevsky’s musings) in a much more explicit fashion. Rather than just mentioning slo-mo models, Arrowhead felt the need to show you the models to explain why they don’t need them.
The common tropes of alcohol advertisements continue to define this role, whether it’s “the most interesting man in the world” endorsing Dos Equis or a mysterious and sexy bar in a hidden alley selling only the finest craft beers, each ad ends with the simple tag line, “Please Drink Responsibly.” This message (outside of being a federal necessity) is often placed while the characters of the ad are still living the best nights of their best lives, heavily influenced and encouraged by ample drinking.
Opening this to a more societal and political perspective, let’s look at the dreaded phrase of “I’m not racist, but…” No one thinks that the statement to follow will truly be not racist, but to look at the comment devoid of context, this simple sentence states that what they will say is not racist.
Through the Ironic Process Theory, correlation is built between two parties based on one party saying that they are not correlated, with the help of added context. When President Donald Trump continuously tweets pieces such as, “NO COLLUSION–RIGGED WITCH HUNT!” (tweeted on Aug. 23 at 1:10 a.m.), one must keep in mind the “contextual” White Bear. When faced with surmounting evidence of collusion alongside cases of cabinet money laundering, screaming on social media that there was no such thing as this collusion automatically associates these two parties as united.
The overall current political landscape denotes an overall abuse of the Ironic Process Theory. If I yelled “HEY DON’T LOOK AT ME,” many would instinctively turn and look. Likewise, by continuously stating, “HEY LOOK AT THESE EMAILS, NOT AT ME,” the American citizen cannot help but look at whose mouth speaks in the first place.
Of course, this is just me trying my best to understand “Just What’s Refreshingly Real.”
Max James is a fourth-year student majoring in communication studies with minors in creative writing and French. ✉ MJ853459@wcupa.edu.