Ad transforms Oscar the Grouch into darling of the contemporary art world

Take two and a half minutes out of your day to watch this brilliant long-form advertisement for Squarespace, which tells the story of how Oscar the Grouch's trash pile is "discovered" by a passer-by, who proclaims it to be the next big thing in contemporary art. The stranger then makes a Squarespace to promote Oscar's work and he finds himself being fawned over as the new "enfant terrible" of the pretentious art crowd. The advertisement was created in 2019 but I felt compelled to share it in case you missed it—because it really is that good.

Method Studios, which worked on the project, which was directed by Jim Jenkins and produced by O Positive, briefly describes the plot of the ad:

Squarespace's new spot "A Cautionary Tale" follows lovable muppet Oscar the Grouch on a whirlwind journey as he rises to international fame. Oscar is suddenly thrust into the spotlight after a passerby views his garbage heap as art, and uses Squarespace to create a website that will share his "trash art" with the world.

Fast Company provides a longer description of the ad's storyline and of the campaign:

When a passerby takes note of Oscar's well stacked pile of garbage, she excitedly declares that it has artistic value, and much to the chagrin of Oscar, takes it upon herself to create a website for him using Squarespace. Soon everyone catches wind of Oscar's creative genius, and he's boosted to celebrity status. The higher his profile rises, the more miserable he becomes. Until he remembers that misery is his thing and he's happy (miserable?) once more.

"We all grew up with Sesame. We learned to count with Sesame, we learned how to read and, in some ways, it actually taught us how to dream when we were kids," says David Lee, Squarespace's chief creative officer. "We've been talking about turning your dreams into something real as our main messaging throughout the year. And we thought that this was a nice way to lead into the holiday season with something that has that little bit of nostalgia." And that nostalgia apparently had a singular focus.

"It absolutely had to be Oscar. We had the ability to choose from a lot of the other characters from the show, but for some odd reason, Oscar just felt like Squarespace," Lee says. "This is equally a story about New York City: Sesame is a New York City organization. Squarespace is a New York City born-and-bred company. In some ways Oscar, for me at least, represents this cynical, misunderstood New Yorker."

As part of the campaign, Squarespace also sold twenty-five Oscar the Grouch-inspired "trash capsules," which sold out immediately at $150 a pop—and all the profits went to the Sesame Street's non-profit organization, the Sesame Workshop. Fast Company described the art capsules, which were created by artist Justin Gignace and featured:

discarded and found items around Sesame Street, including Big Bird's feathers, Cookie Monster's half-eaten cookies, pages from the writer's room, and so forth—all arranged in glass cubes. The concept stems from an art project Gignac had several years ago where he reimagined trash as art.

What surprised me most about the ad is how close it gets to a critique of capitalism and the commodification of everyday life, and how it positions modern art as spectacle. In the spot, Oscar has no interest in art, eschews fame, and directly points out how ridiculous the art world is. In the end, on the red carpet, at the opening of the brand new "Contemporary Trash Museum" his art has inspired, he loudly declares "I've never been more miserable in my life!"

I recently read this recent piece, called "Oscar the Grouch as Contemporary Diogenes the Cynic," which is a strangely brilliant short essay by 0xADADA, which was co-authored with ChatGPT using this prompt:

Write an essay placing Oscar the Grouch within the Hellenistic philosophical tradition, comparing him to a contemporary Diogenes the Cynic. Describe Oscar the Grouch as if you were describing Guy Debord, and make references to The Society of the Spectacle. Elaborate on how Oscar the Grouch rejects consumerist society, how he embraces dumpster diving and the wastefulness of capitalism. Define the term 'garbage' as the detritus of surplus value using the Marxist definition of surplus value. Describe his position as critic of wider society, focusing on ho he literally lives on the front lines of climate change.

The resulting essay absolutely nails Oscar's role in that Squarespace ad, and on Sesame Street and in American culture more generally:

In the words of Guy Debord, the creator of the concept of the "Society of the Spectacle," Oscar embodies a rejection of the false realities and empty spectacles of modern society. He lives outside the system, literally on the fringes of society, and does not participate in the relentless pursuit of material possessions and status.

Oscar's embrace of dumpster diving and his apparent lack of concern for hygiene and cleanliness can be seen as a rejection of the wastefulness and excess of capitalist society. In Marxist terms, the garbage that Oscar collects and lives among can be seen as the detritus of surplus value, the discarded byproducts of a system that prioritizes profit over all else.

As a critic of wider society, Oscar occupies a unique position. Living on the streets, he is literally on the front lines of climate change and other environmental issues. His rejection of mainstream values and way of life makes him a powerful symbol of resistance to the destructive forces of capitalism and consumerism.

Trust me, go watch it. You'll love it.