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Ad Dissonance

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Selling the American Dream against the hard truth of the Great Depression. Oh, and the Ohio River Flood.
"Welcome to Pandora. Your final destination, GUARANTEED!"
— Billboards in Borderlands

Happy families frolicking on a beach as a cute little jingle plays in the background. Grinning supermodels moonily discussing how wonderful the product is. A cheerful, paternal-sounding announcer going on about how its makers are dedicated to improving your life. It seems like a normal, saccharine-sweet ad.

...Until, of course, we zoom out to see it playing on a flickering TV in the middle of a war zone, displayed on a rotting billboard in a Ghost City, or being beamed into the minds of some grim Dystopia's residents. The ad will (almost) always be for the Mega-Corp that caused the whole mess in the first place, especially if it's a Cyberpunk work.

Sub-Trope of Ironic Juxtaposition. As you see above, it's a definite Truth in Television. For examples from This Very Wiki, see Ad of Win and Ad of Lose. If the product being advertised is a medication with a long list of side-effects, that's Side Effects Include.... See Art-Style Dissonance, where it is the aesthetic and look of a work that clashes with the tone rather than an advertisement.


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    Comic Books 
  • Red Robin: When Tim returns to Gotham, he stands in front of a cheery ad with a smiling family declaring Gotham a great place to live right before diving into the graffiti-covered streets to deal with a mugger.

    Film — Animated 

    Film — Live-Action 
  • Brazil: Advertisements for things like secure cruise lines ("A panic-free atmosphere!") and things to buy are all over the place, plus standard "anti-espionage" posters ("loose lips sink ships") on the offices. All of which are little more than literal window dressing to try to cover the colossally screwed-up, barely-functioning world the characters live in: one scene shows a road with an endless line of billboards on each side, which prevent anybody on the vehicles from seeing an endless arid wasteland lying beyond.
  • Used with depressing effectiveness in Children of Men.
  • The publicity ad for Shell Beach in Dark City. It is one of the few happy and bright images in the entire movie, where the city is dark and run down. It gets truly dissonant because while the main character and his uncle remember growing up and living there, no one knows how to get there. It turns out that the reality-warping aliens have implanted Fake Memories of the place in everyone; it never existed.
  • This was the first teaser trailer for Resident Evil: Extinction. It starts by showing a tourism ad for Las Vegas that then starts glitching out, repeating "where the party never dies" as the camera pulls out and reveals it's playing on a big screen in the sand-blasted ruins of a post-apocalyptic Vegas.
  • Star Trek V: The Final Frontier has a cheerful real-estate ad for Nimbus III playing several times in the planet's capital, Paradise City — even though the whole place is a Crapsack World on par with Tatooine.


    Live-Action TV 
  • Auf Wiedersehen, Pet features this in its first title sequence with one of the characters walking towards the dole office in front of Saatchi & Saatchi's famous 'Labour isn't working' poster.
  • Babylon 5: The episode "And Now for a Word" includes an in-universe PsiCorps commercial depicting the organization as friendly helpful people... hardly the sort to engage in some of the unpleasant business they've gotten up to in many other episodes.
  • The Doctor Who serial "The Armageddon Factor" opens with a Patriotic Fervor speech between young lovers that turns out to be a soap opera being shown on a war-ravaged world.
  • Pennies from Heaven is all about this trope, a comedy about how during the Depression, movies just portrayed everyone as rich, happy — and dancing.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Shadowrun: One illustration for the adventure Double Exposure has a billboard for Project Hope, with a happy family and the words "The Bravest Future". Under the billboard, some Project Hope goons are giving a man a bloody beating.

    Video Games 
  • The various posters in BioShock, which advertise a wonderful utopia in contrast to the torn-apart state you find the city in. The special edition of BioShock 2 even comes with some print outs of them with hidden messages printed in UV ink on the front.
  • Borderlands, especially in the areas added by Secret Armory of General Knoxx DLC, has optimistic, 1920s-style billboards advertising settlement on Pandora, a planet full of aggressive wildlife and homicidal bandits.
  • Endless Space 2: The United Empire faction's intro video features a cheery propaganda montage hailing the glory of the Empire, which ends in a still that pans out to reveal it's actually a billboard on the real, highly polluted, slum-covered, United Empire homeworld.
  • The Fallout series uses this trope on more than one level; not only do the ads provide a blackly comic contrast to the post-apocalyptic wasteland, it's also made rather obvious that they were also rather at odds with the reality of everyday life before the war.
  • The opening scene of Rogue Trooper: Quartz Zone Massacre is a Nort propaganda video boasting about how much the Southers have been beaten. At the end of the scene, the camera pans out to show the TV is lying in the middle of a battlefield in which the Norts were creamed.
  • The story trailer for the Stellaris: Megacorp expansion pack shows slick, shiny, upbeat corporate advertising for the titular Mega-Corp contrasted with what looks like a gritty, impoverished, authoritarian dystopia.

  • Somewhere in The Ends, which happens in good part in the eponymous hellhole city, there is billboard advertising the legendary city of Avalon that people are looking for. It's a stark contrast. The Ends is actually the ruins of Avalon.

    Web Original 
  • In a video explaining how Google AdSense works, the YouTuber Appabend invokes this trope by mentioning how he once saw an ad for Iron Fist (2017) on Netflix right before a video criticizing Iron Fist for Orientalism.
  • Norwegian skeptic blogger Gunnar Tjomlid once noted that he got ads for the diet supplement Chili Forte on his blog despite it being the exact kind of product he's inclined to debunk.note  Indeed, he showed off a screenshot of these Chili Forte ads in a blog post arguing that Chili Forte is a scam.

    Real Life 
  • The above page image is a good example. Doubly so when you consider the racial situation at the time.note 
  • Tumblr once ran ads for Autism Speaks, which was ironic considering the number of blogs on the site by autistic people who were extremely critical of the organization.
  • Bridal magazines first started appearing during The Great Depression, encouraging brides (or rather, their families) to spend gobs of money on lavish weddings and Fairytale Wedding Dresses, as well as ads for household items (you know, for the bridal shower!) Given the time period, most of the readerships of these magazines would have found those kind of weddings difficult (or even impossible) to pay for, or have their parents pay for. And prior to this, most weddings were much simpler affairs, at least among middle and working-class people. Only the well-to-do could afford lavish weddings. This trend continues to this day.
  • There's a very infamous video of a billboard in New York City with Mariah Carey promoting Glitter, where the camera then pans up to show the burning World Trade Center towers.
  • Back in The '70s, the food company Nestle began marketing baby formula. That wasn't so bad in and of itself, except that they were marketing the formula in very poor, rural, "third-world" countries. This led to several problems: for one thing, clean water wasn't available in these places, and many people were not educated about germ theory or proper sterilization of things like baby bottles. For another thing, the formula was expensive in these countries, leading to mothers diluting the formula to stretch their supply (decreasing its nutritional value). The result of this ill-advised marketing campaign was an increase in infant mortality (as babies died from malnutrition, as well as from waterborne diseases and parasites). That led to conspiracy theories, a general mistrust of baby formula, and a push for mothers to breastfeed, even in places (like the US) that did not have these problems.