Bayer Commercial Appropriates Ancient Story and Misses the Mark

 By Kate Daley-Bailey

Renowned American Religion scholar, Catherine L. Albanese, opens her now classic text, America: Religions and Religion, with the following statement:

There is a story that both Buddhists and some Muslims claim as their own and like to use as a teaching device. It is about an elephant and a group of blind men who have never before encountered one. Each of the men felt the elephant, took note of his sensations, and later described the experience. Some, who had felt the head of the animal, claimed that an elephant was like a pot. Others, who had felt an ear, claimed that an elephant was like a harvest basket used to separate grain. Still others had touched a tusk, and they announced that an elephant was part of a plow, while finally, another group that had patted the trunk thought an elephant was a plow, whole and complete. The moral of the story, of course, goes beyond elephants to the secrets of the universe and of life. Each individual tries to fathom these secrets from a place of personal darkness. Each describes the portion experienced, and none can speak about the whole. The lesson is to accept the fact of human limitation with humility and the fact of cosmic complexity with awe. Nobody will ever know the whole story, because the vastness that surrounds us far exceeds our senses or our ability to understand.

I would venture to take Albanese’s claim further… as I have come across this story used in Hindu traditions as well.  

Many viewers of a recent Bayer commercial maybe surprised by a similar illustration used to describe a woman’s relationship with her knowledge about her birth control product.  I recently became aware of this commercial when a few astute students of mine passed on the information about Bayer’s latest commercial which appears to invoke a revised version of this ancient story. The commercial begins with a few blindfolded young women encountering a rhinoceros which is located in the middle of the scene. Each woman touches and inspects a different part of the rhino and makes an assumption based upon their limited experience. I find it fascinating that these are not old blind sages but rather young, slender, fashionable, blindfolded American women. The story is changed again by the act of the women taking off their blindfolds to discover a rhinoceros in all of its glory. The scene then shifts to a lab where “scientists” are researching and testing their product. The commercial ends with one of the young women from the rhinoceros scene picking up her birth control at her local pharmacy.  (See link below to view the video at Bayer).

The religion nerd in me was excited and enthralled by the unusual morphing and appropriation of this story to advertise birth control. Despite the surface interest I have in this commercial, I was also drawn deeper into questioning the message being sent in the commercial as well as the demographic Bayer is attempting to reach with this commercial.

Concern one—The Message: As one of my friends pointed out to me, the ancient story which this commercial is invoking actually seems to nullify the argument they are trying to make. The moral of the ancient story implies that human knowledge is by nature limited. This ancient story is meant to warn students against hubris, against a false pride. Many religious cultures have similar warnings against trying to know all, to step outside the bounds of human knowledge, etc. The temple to Apollo at Delphi, Plutarch tells us, read “know thyself” which was not necessarily encouraging ancient Greeks to “find their inner-child” but rather to always be aware of one’s place in this world, a place that was under that of the gods. The “moral” of the Bayer commercial seems to be that we have the ability now to take off our “blindfolds” to see the full picture before us.  I agree that all people should attempt to know as much as possible about the medications they are taking, and any risks that are associated with them.  I just wonder if this analogy, whose original message was meant to emphasize humanity’s lack of complete knowledge, was the best fit for the purposes of this commercial whose message’s seems to be that human’s can take off their metaphorical “blindfolds” to see the whole truth.  

Concern two—The Demographic: I wonder which demographic Bayer is aiming at with this commercial. The women in the commercial represent young and stylish women from multiple ethnic backgrounds. Is Bayer hoping to target young, educated, professional women that are vaguely familiar with this tale? If that is their goal… women who are familiar with this story, via their religious and cultural background or simply by taking a world religions course, might find the appropriation interesting but also problematic. If Bayer’s target audience is women who are not familiar with this story, viewers may think this an unusual analogy.  Some YouTube viewers have posted comments in the vein of “what does a rhinoceros have to do with birth control?” Despite my critique, I do think the imagery is visually stunning and Bayer has probably won some points with viewers due the commercial’s unusual opening scene.

Concern three—The Commercial History of Bayer: Bayer is a giant prescription drug distributor which has in recent years come under attack of several lawsuits from women taking their birth control product Yaz.  Some of these young women have claimed that taking Yaz caused them to have strokes. Considering these lawsuits, Bayer might be trying, through commercials such as the one we are examining, to encourage young women who are taking their product to be more informed about the possible side effects of taking any birth control product. The main motivation behind this commercial may have less to do with selling their product and more to do with their advertising department doing damage control, in regard to the publicity these aforementioned lawsuits are getting from the media.

All that being said, it was pretty thrilling to have students bring this commercial to my attention. Advertising departments seem to be taking cues from the greatest and most successful marketing programs in history, religions.

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