The Greatest Ad of All Time?

As you know, my sister and I have the hobby of finding and documenting what we have rather clumsily dubbed "non-puns," particularly as they occur in advertising, packaging, or marketing materials.  But the other day at Ventura Beach I encountered something far greater. 

The place was Hats Unlimited, a hat store catering to tourists and other beachgoers in Ventura's Harbor Village.  In the window was a sign, a black Jolly Roger with the words "Dead Men Don't Buy Hats."

Now, what is this?

There are lots of advertisements that are poorly thought out.  An ad that unwittingly denigrates the product it is trying to sell.  An ad that is confusing or vague.  An ad like that offends the sensibilities of its target audience.

But this, I would argue, is something new.  This ad demonstrates no thought at all.  It's not a stupid idea, it's a demonstration of the total absence of ideas.  My argument is, the person who created and designed and commissioned and paid for and displayed this ad did not for one moment consider what any of those words mean.  He had heard the phrase "Dead Men Don't" and he knew he wanted people to buy hats, and that was it.  He was dealing with language at the level of pure sound and pattern, a stream of content-less phonemes rather than packets of discrete meaning.  It's a strange, aphasic, primal way of writing ad copy.  It is, maybe, the best ad?

(I do feel obliged to mention that my friend Travis Waddington offered an alternate explanation: if one were to advance the contrapositive of "Dead Men Don't Buy Hats" as "If You Buy a Hat, You Are Not Dead," then buying a hat becomes an affirmation of life, a novelty sun visor snatched from the brink of the grave. Buy a hat and truly live! Gather ye rosebuds and all that.  A tempting hypothesis but almost certainly not true.)