Funny or Die, “Legitimate Rape Pharmaceutical Ad”

UPDATE: The creators of this ad have notified PARC that they wish to include the following notice with this analysis: “The video was not produced or sanctioned by Funny or Die. We made it independently and posted it on Funny or Die after it was completed but FoD had no say in it at all. FoD’s proprietary productions are never released on YouTube.”

  • Ad Title: “Legitimate Rape Pharmaceutical Ad”
  • Ad Sponsor: Funny or Die
  • Issue of Focus: Abortion views of Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin and other Republican politicians
  • Type of Advertisement: Negative
  • Broadcast Locations: Widely circulated online
  • Release Date: August 28, 2012
  • Length: 1 minute, 30 seconds
  • Web Address(es):

“Legitimate Rape Pharmaceutical Ad” Transcript (Transcribed by Thomas McCloskey)

Woman: Are you a woman who sometimes finds it difficult to afford expensive birth control? If so, you’re probably suffering from Sexually Liberated Uterine Tendencies.

The letters S-L-U-T are shown on the screen.

Woman: A serious medical condition. Fortunately, now there’s a treatment that can help.

An assailant wearing a black hooded sweatshirt tackles the woman from the side. The camera cuts to her struggling as a hand against her face pushes her head into the ground. Smiling, she continues.

Woman: It’s called “Legitimate Rape!”

A crudely drawn cartoon uterus, captioned “Actual Uterus,” appears on screen. Cartoon ovaries with faces drawn on them are on either side, and large cartoon sperm swim into the uterus.

Voiceover: Legitimate rape activates the body’s natural method for preventing pregnancy.

Cartoon hands squeeze the cartoon ovaries.

Ovary number 1: This rape is completely legitimate!

Ovary number 2: Let’s shut this whole thing down.

Cartoon fists punch the sperm, punctuated by loud hitting noises and captions of “POW” and “BAM.”

The camera cuts to the woman struggling on her back as her assailant grips her wrists.

Woman: It was always so hard to remember to take a pill at the same time everyday.

The woman is flipped over and her assailant grabs her hair, jerking her head backward.

Woman: But with legitimate rape, I prefer not to think about it at all!

A beautiful field of sunflowers and “See our ad in NATIONAL REVIEW” appears on screen.

Voiceover: In clinical studies, Legitimate Rape did not prevent the transmission of HIV and other STD’s.

The camera cuts to a beautiful blooming flower.

Voiceover: Side effects of Legitimate Rape may include depression, nausea, insomnia, bruising and accusations that you’re just being hysterical.

The camera cuts to the woman sitting on the ground. She has visible bruises on her arms and her back is covered in dirt and bark dust.

Woman: Legitimate Rape isn’t for everyone. To find out if it’s right for you, ask your doctor.

The assailant punches the woman in the face. While smiling, she continues.

Woman: Ask your Congressman!

The Washington Monument and the word “DISCLAIMER” appears, and the voiceover’s quickly spoken words are transcribed on screen.

Voiceover: Under the legal definition of rape that Congressman Todd Akin, Paul Ryan and 171 other Republicans co-sponsored last January, Legitimate Rape must be FORCIBLY applied. In layman’s terms, that means if you’re just a 13 year-old who gets molested by your gym teacher or a college girl who just gets drugged and wakes up naked in an unfamiliar room, under the Akin-Ryan rape guidelines, your rape in NOT legitimate. And that means you could still get pregnant.

The camera returns to the smiling woman and a “Legitimate Rape” logo.

Woman: Legitimate Rape: It’s like regular birth control, except as imagined by crazy people.

The screen goes black. The following appears on screen: “Sexual assault is a serious issue. If you need help visit or call 1-800-686-HOPE. The production is not endorsed by RAIN, or any political party or candidate. #LegitimateRapeAd 

Analysis of “Legitimate Rape Pharmaceutical Ad” 

Thomas McCloskey, University of Maryland 

“Legitimate Rape Pharmaceutical Ad” Context 

The 2012 Missouri Senate race has featured a series of highs and lows for six-term republican congressman Todd Akin. In the GOP primary in August, Akin emerged victorious in a three-way race, earning 36% of the vote. “In doing so, he beat out Sarah Palin’s candidate of choice, former state treasurer Sarah Steelman, and John Brunner, a businessman who poured more than $7.5 million of his own money into the race” (Fox News). Helping Akin through the primary was his general election opponent, incumbent Senator Democrat Claire McCaskill, who spent $1.5 million dollars during the republican primary on pro-Akin television advertisements in response to polling data that “suggested that Akin would offer the least threat to McCaskill in a one-on-one contest” (McDermott). Shortly after Akin’s win, McCaskill’s bet that Akin was an “unpredictable” candidate who “wouldn’t play well with moderates” if he survived to the general election appeared to be well founded (Sullivan).

Two weeks after winning the primary, Akin gave an interview to KTVI-TV in St. Louis in which he was asked whether abortion should be allowed in cases of a pregnancy caused by rape. He answered, “From what I understand from doctors, that’s really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down” (Saletan).

Amidst public outcry, Akin released a statement in which he attempted to somewhat retract his early comments: “In reviewing my off-the-cuff remarks, it’s clear that I misspoke in this interview and it does not reflect the deep empathy I hold for the thousands of women who are raped and abused every year” (Cohen). Sen. McCaskill responded on twitter: “As a woman & former prosecutor who handled 100s of rape cases, I’m stunned by Rep. Akin’s comments about victims this AM” (Cohen). The following day, Akin promised to stay in the race, despite mounting pressure for him to withdraw (Bassett). In the week following Akin’s legitimate rape remarks and with less than three months until the general election, some polls showed the Missouri senate race to still be within the margin of error (Real Clear Politics), and McCaskill was not pulling away, as many presumed she would in the immediate aftermath of the scandal (Hughes).

“Legitimate Rape Pharmaceutical Ad” Background

On August 29th, ten days after Akin’s comments, the satirical website “Funny or Die” released a parody pharmaceutical advertisement depicting “legitimate rape” as a method of birth control. Funny or Die was founded by former Saturday Night Live writers and comedians Will Ferrell and Adam McKay (Littleton). Other popular videos on the website at the time the “Legitimate Rape” video was released include “The Hungover Games,” “Rollercoaster Safety,” “Mauled by a Bear,” “Bieber After the Dentist” and “Coffee Snobs,” among dozens of others. Typical Funny or Die videos are satirical parodies and social commentaries on entertaining subjects. Despite the usually ridiculous themes of their videos, the Funny or Die comedians occasionally venture into political territory. Their “Prop 8: The Musical” video staring actor Jack Black as Jesus earned over 7 million views on the site alone since it premiered in 2008 (Shakman), and the website recently released parodies of people struggling to vote under the new conservative voter identification laws and of Mitt Romney’s secretly recorded “47%” comments. However, even when Funny or Die videos have more serious implications, they are presented in an entertaining way, and as Funny or Die Vice President Chris Buss explains, “Our point of view is that everything should be entertaining” (Ferenstein). Thus, an initial assumption of the “Legitimate Rape” ad is that was intended, like other Funny or Die videos, to be humorous social commentary.

Another central assumption of the ad is that Akin’s “legitimate rape” remarks are incorrect and problematic. Traditional thinking about Internet blogs like Funny or Die is that they are consumed by young people, who tend to be left leaning—66% of 18- to 29-year-olds voted for pro-choice Barack Obama in 2008 (Heffner). However, even discounting the presumptive age of the ads viewers, Funny or Die’s political videos are exclusively one-sided in their slant as conservatives are always the targets of their jokes. In addition to the videos mentioned earlier, the website also featured a popular video in which boxer Mike Tyson imitates former GOP Presidential candidate Herman Cain, and another in which actor John Goodman, impersonating Kentucky Fried Chicken’s “Colonel Sanders,” mocks Chic-Fil-A’s anti-gay policies. Funny or Die has also repeatedly mocked conservative policies towards birth control in the past, releasing “Republicans, Get In My Vagina!” starring actress Kate Beckinsale, and “Wing It Parenthood,” starring actress Connie Britton, both of which earned over a million views on the site.

This consistently liberal political and ideological slant of Funny or Die’s videos indicates that the “Legitimate Rape” ad functions as a criticism of Akin’s comments. The ad suggests that because of the degree of presumed offensiveness in Akin’s remarks and their corresponding policy implications for birth control, he should not be elected to the United States Senate. Thus, the ad constructs humorous social commentary criticizing Akin and other Republican abortion policies.

“Legitimate Rape Pharmaceutical Ad” Analysis

The advertisement makes two rhetorical moves: it functions as a comedic parody of pharmaceutical commercials and of Akin’s views regarding sexual assault. These themes are examined in the following section through the various communication strategies deployed in the advertisement.

1) The advertisement as a pharmaceutical advertisement parody. The Funny or Die advertisement functions as a parody by using visual and aural tropes that are common in pharmaceutical commercials. As Robert Hariman explains, “parody replicates some prior form and thereby makes that form an object of one’s attention rather than a transparent vehicle for some other message” (Hariman 7). In the case of the “legitimate rape” Funny or Die commercial, the form being imitated is that of a pharmaceutical advertisement.

Several visual rhetorical devices are used to parody the tropes of pharmaceutical ads. First, the ad frequently uses textual comments on the screen. The ad begins with the woman, played by actress and co-writer/producer Laura Napoli, telling the audience about a new way to treat Sexually Liberated Uterine Tendencies: a new form of birth control called “Legitimate Rape.” As she explains her “condition,” the letters S.L.U.T. appear on the screen. Later, the ad shows the audience a picture of the Washington Monument as a list of disclaimers appears in paragraph form on the screen about when Legitimate Rape might not “work” that is designed to shield the “drug company” from any legal liability. This use of written textual comments in a commercial is a well-known trope of pharmaceutical commercials.

Second, the advertisement uses familiar cartoonish visual techniques common in pharmaceutical ads. The screen cuts to a typical commercial shot of a field of sunflowers and blooming tulips. At one point, a cartoon uterus appears on screen, demonstrating for the audience how “Legitimate Rape” works to—quoting Akin’s words—“shut this whole thing down” and prevent conception during a rape. The 10-second cartoon, crudely depicting a uterus (and including the caption “Actual Uterus”) and featuring Adam West-era Batman “POW” and “BAM” captions as the cartoon sperm are punched into oblivion. The use of juvenile, rudimentary cartoons that quickly explain how a medicine could “work” in the most broad terms is a frequent rhetorical strategy in pharmaceutical commercials, indicating that the “Legitimate Rape” Funny or Die commercial functions as a visual parody of this common trope.

Aural messages are also used in the advertisement to parody pharmaceutical commercials. Both the character’s voices and the music in the advertisement highlight its parody strategies. Throughout the advertisement, Napoli’s character speaks with a happy, extremely cheerful tone of voice, even while being assaulted. A happy voiceover reads through some potential “side effects” of Legitimate Rape that include the brutal results the audience would expect from sexual assault. Every voice in the advertisement is, at worst, very calm and composed. Similarly, the music throughout the commercial is upbeat and pleasant. The generally calm tone these aural messages establish closely resembles those of typical pharmaceutical commercials, demonstrating the parody function of the “Legitimate Rape” advertisement.

2) The advertisement as a parody critique of Akin’s views. Funny or Die’s commercial uses visual rhetorical strategies to parody Todd Akin’s comments and serve as a larger criticism of the policies of the Republican Party on the whole. These images are presented in two stages: parodying a sexual assault, and linking that attack to Akin and the GOP. Initially, the commercial depicts a brutal sex crime. It begins with a young woman sitting in a nonspecific wooded area, perhaps a park or a trail, with the camera pointed at her from a medium distance. She is assaulted and violently shoved into the ground. The audience sees her struggling against her attacker as the camera zooms in only on her upper body, showing her smiling face and the hands and arms of her assailant. When the ad returns from the uterus cartoon, it is clear from the bruises on her arms and dirt on her back and in her hair that she has recently been the victim of a horrific attack. By breaking the assault into several sections—of 3 seconds, 8 seconds, and 6 seconds in length—the audience repeatedly encounters a brutal and ongoing attack on a young woman. This ad represents “[r]hetorically crafted performance fragments [which] constitute political illusions—aesthetically framed images that manipulate the public’s emotions and perceptions of political reality” (Erickson 141). In other words, the visual rhetoric of the sexual assault parody is a powerful rhetorical text.

Despite the brutality of the commercial’s depicted attack, it is apparent that this portrayal is ultimately a parody of an assault and not an actual one—though these images can still be rhetorically potent. As Hariman explains, “By remaking the direct discourse into an image of itself, parody creates a virtual world in which one may play with what has been said and so think about it without direct consequences of reprimand, censorship, or punishment” (9). Through parody, Funny or Die is able to rhetorically construct a sexual assault and demonstrate its horrific consequences without taking on the emotional and criminal consequences of actually constructing one. The more graphic the pretend assault, the more potential the parody has to make a lasting impression. With this depiction of sexual assault established, the next stage involves linking this parody to the advertisement’s ultimate target. “The full significance of the parodic function is evident when placing a parody and its target discourse side by side” (Hariman 8). By acting out what “legitimate rape” would look like through visual rhetoric, Funny or Die’s images next parody their target: Akin, and his real-life views on conception-by-rape.

After the initial phase of her attack, the woman continues her smiling presentation undaunted, encouraging women to ask their congressmen if they have any health questions about “Legitimate Rape.” These disclaimers isolate Akin, Republican Vice Presidential Candidate Paul Ryan, and 171 other Republicans for their views on what qualifies as a legitimate rape. The ad returns to the bruised but smiling woman as she explains to the audience that “Legitimate Rape” is just like regular birth control, except as imagined by crazy people. It is clear that the GOP and Akin specifically are the target of the parody, both in the title of the commercial itself and in the fact that their votes on specific pieces of legislation are singled out in the advertisement. Funny or Die is clear: Akin the butt of the joke.

“Legitimate Rape Pharmaceutical Ad” Response and Commentary

The ad was not widely consumed, being viewed a comparatively low 121,000 times on Funny or Die’s website and another 613,000 times on youtube. Although an unknown number on mirrored blog posts saw the commercial, it reached only a fraction of the viewers of a primetime cable news advertisement. Reaction to the ad was broken into two overarching camps, one that felt the ad went too far and could be traumatizing for sexual assault survivors and another that believed the ad was an effective satire of Akin’s remarks. The popular blog Gawker, in an article entitled “Does This Brutal Takedown of Todd Akin’s ‘Legitimate Rape’ Remarks Go Too Far?” points out, “Rarely does an Internet parody video need a trigger warning for rape victims, but Funny or Die’s ‘Legitimate Rape’ faux-pharmaceutical ad is so unrepentantly brutal in its mockery of Rep. Todd Akin’s now-infamous remarks that it probably needs more than one” (Zimmerman). One commentator on the blog Joe My God summed up this view that it was “just plain disrespectful to women (many of whom have been sexually assaulted), to depict a woman being ‘throttled around’ for popular amusement” (Dan). Those reacting negatively to the advertisement are relying on the assumption that sexual assault survivors would see the commercial in the first place, and that those individuals would be offended or even traumatized by the ad’s rhetorical strategies. My analysis does not attempt to endorse or comment on those concerns, only to highlight that some individuals reacted negatively to the Funny or Die commercial.

Conversely, other reactions to the video were positive. A Huffington Post poll posted in an article about the ad attempted to measure the overall reaction to the video. Over 70% of respondents voted for the “Love it. The video makes an appropriately strong statement” option, and only 15% voted for the “Hate it. Rape isn’t funny. Ever.” choice (Huffington Post). One YouTube commenter summarized this perspective:

I lived through 10 years of incest. I wasn’t thinking about that when watching the video. I was thinking of the video’s point – there are actually policy makers that make light of something so terrible and that people have actually elected these dimwits to power. Anger towards this video is misguided. You’re shooting at the messenger…. (Jorezshai)

This commenter suggests that the focus of criticism should be on Akin, Paul Ryan, and other elected officials who sincerely believe that conception by rape is not possible. Thus, others who saw the advertisement reacted positively to its parody.

Claire McCaskill currently holds a solid lead over Todd Akin in most polls, and Nate Silver of the popular election blog “Fivethirtyeight” gives her an 86.9% chance of holding onto her Senate seat (Silver). Given that Akin had a double-digit lead in some polls before his “Legitimate Rape” comments (Real Clear Politics), it is safe to assume that his gaffe likely contributed to his electoral slide. Whether or not Funny or Die’s “Legitimate Rape Pharmaceutical Ad” made a contribution to Akin’s dip in the polls is impossible to assess. However, this textual analysis of the ad suggests that its use of parody, both of pharmaceutical advertisements and of Akin’s views made it potent political parody.


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