Advertising With Character: an exploration into the use and abuse of characters in marketing -- from Aunt Jemima, to Josephine the Plumber, to Joe the Plumber -- running December 10 through January 16.
Note -- 12/24: Though I originally expected to finish this series on Christmas Day, I have decided to extend this series with a number of new entries. The extra work will take me through the beginning of the new year. Bear with me -- I hope to make it worth the wait.
OK, let's start with a quick recap of the series to date. I opened with a post about the origins of character -- namely, the recurring character. The origins are ancient, but most recently they came to us at the brink of the Industrial Revolution by way of the theatre (the Victorian stage). I then looked at the transition from character making to mass character production and the role that Hollywood, broadcast media and TV played during that transition. I then looked at the question, "Why Brands Need Character," with a general overview of three characters types -- slaves, clowns, and heroes -- that have enabled brands to relate with consumers in an "almost human way." I looked at the earliest type, slaves, concluding that it's a precursor to a contemporary type -- the CEO as corporate servant -- which would develop even further in the social media era. After a brief look at some of the methods and tools that advertisers have used to introduce these characters into every part of our lives -- they are in your kitchen, in your bath, in your toilet, in your pants. -- I am now ready to look at the second character type, which I call "clowns."
The first thing you need to understand about clowns is what they are not. Again, it's helpful to look at the theatre for illustration. The clown is not the slave in ancient comedy. But he could be. In fact, one might argue that slaves make the best clowns, as in the case of Pseudolus, the slave character in "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," the Stephen Sondheim adaptation of stories from ancient roman comedy. The role of the slave is to serve the audience -- by providing access, a window, into the story. Nor is the clown the hero in the play. The role of the hero -- as I will show in tomorrow's post -- is to drive the events of the story. And the role of the clown? In simple terms, his role is to try to subvert the whole thing -- the story, the hero, even the slave if necessary (whether or not the clown happens to be a slave).
It's easy to see why this works in comedy. There's an old saying: tragedy is when a bad thing happens to you; comedy is when bad things happen to other people. So we are quite OK with characters who work to subvert the whole thing. That's what makes comedies fun. But how do they work in advertising? To get to this, I have divided the lot of my of clown-like characters in advertising -- which total 86 of the 250-plus characters I have collected (more than a third) -- into three general groups: clowns who distract, characters who distance, and characters who serve the role of making the hero look good (foils). It's this last category which really help me to make the point of this post -- that, fundamentally, the clown's role is a subversive one. But what's being subverted is the big question, because while all this drama is happening, brands are getting built, goods are being sold, and you, the consumer, are buying those goods.
My business partner Peter Hirshberg -- who knows a thing or two about theatre himself -- likes to refer to people in our world (the world of marketing) as "merchants of distraction." Of course, this is the kind of thing that social media folks should be working against. Someday, we believe, it will all end. In the interim, we're in the business of gaining, earning, or otherwise capturing the attention of consumers who, frankly, have little time for us. We understand that the social-media revolution, to some extent, has made matters worse. We are all -- marketers and consumers alike -- busier than ever. But attention has been a problem for quite some time, at least since the days when food and toy brands first learned to fight for the attention of children -- the chief "lobbyists" in the home that Sut Jhally often talks about -- on Saturday mornings. Chances are that you first encountered many of the clown characters when you were a child. But you are surrounded by them to this day. And their first job is to distract you and get ... your ... attention.
Who are they, and how do they get the job done? There are characters who are loud (Crazy Eddie, The Wiz, the Cocoa Puffs bird). Characters who are colorful (Froot Loops Toucan Sam, Gillette's Sharpie the Parrot, M&M's, the Fruit of the Loom guys, and of course, "real clowns" like Kedso and Ronald McDonald). Characters who are hyperactive (again, the Cocoa Puffs bird) move funny (Mr. Six for Six Flags), seem odd or nerdy (Burger King's Herb). They amuse us because they they are too small (Sprite's Miles Thirst, the Little Caesar slave/clown, and Nike's Lil Penny and Mars Blackmon), too large (Geoffrey the Giraffe for Toys R Us), too young for their roles (Quizno's Baby Bob, and the controversial Jell-O Chinese baby), too old for their lines (the Wendy's "where's the beef lady"). We like them because they are bad (the Foster Farms chickens, the Bud Ice Penguin, the Raid insects, the Bardahl Bad Guys, the Frito Bandito) because they are smartasses (the Capitol One "no!" guy), because they are annoying (Expedia's Cooper, and Ernest, the clown in countless commercials in the 80s), lazy (Western Airline's Wally the Bird), disingenuous (the "I love you, man!" Bud Light guy).
We like all of these qualities in clowns. But most of all we like to be surprised -- the reward for distraction -- and the best clowns in advertising are designed to do just that, using the plasticity of the media that's available to make the oddest juxtapositions between character types and products -- angels and toilet tissue, barbarians and credit cards, cavemen and insurance, gorillas and luggage, monks and copy machines, aliens and pizza, frogs and beer, lizards and beer, dogs and beer, bears and beer, ducks and bubble gum, and an incredible menagerie of animals, elves, monsters and freaks for children's cereals (Count Chocula, Frankenberry, Boo Berry, Quisp, and Quake, just to name a few). The freakier the clown, the better the ad, which might help to explain the success of the infamous Quizno's Spongemonkey spots, the epitome -- in my opinion -- of advertisement as distraction.
As I said above, the chief attribute of the clown is what he is not -- he is not a slave (not always), and he is not a hero. Which is another way of saying that he is not you. Unless, of course, the character inspires you to feel clownish. A few characters in advertising have managed to do that, and when they do, advertisers get the prize they always strive for: a character who the masses will mimic and whose lines they will repeat. (This is the world of word-of-mouth, a place many advertisers never get to see.) The best examples of this type of character? I have two nominees. First, there's Wendy's Clara Peller ("Where's the beef?"), which not only became part of the common vernacular in the 1980's after the commercials first played but also played a role in the 1984 Democratic primary race. But a better and more recent example is the stoner-type Dell Dude. "Dude, you're getting a Dell" not only became a famous catchphrase for the budget PC manufacturer but it also -- however briefly -- helped the company to shed its stodgy image and appear smarter, hipper to a new generation of consumers. And it did that with a touch of irony, which, as I will show in the next section, was becoming at least as important as slapstick, the obviously distracting style of humor which had long dominated these types of commercials.
The attention game got tougher as people got busier. And people also got smarter, too. By the late 1950s, simple slave and clown characters were not enough to keep Americans tuned to their sets. Advertisers began weaving ironic characters and themes into their scripts. An early example of this was an animated character for Chevron named Hy Finn. Actor Paul Ford provided the voice for the urbane man with the "disinterested voice." The humor in these spots was the inside joke with the audience -- a wink-wink/nod-nod understanding that "yes this is funny, but it's an advertisement alright." It was around this time that the husband-wife-team Mike Nichols and Elaine May were recruited to do a series of ads for a little-known beer called Jax. The sophisticated, deadpan Nichols/May style was the trademark of these spots which played more like miniature, sophisticated dramas than straight-up commercials.
The shift to irony came with a growing recognition that for some consumers, it was important to acknowledge the wizard -- Madison Avenue -- behind the curtain and acknowledge the artifice of the commercial. But it wasn't until the late 80's -- after 30 more years of TV advertising experiments, that we began seeing a lot more of this type of commercial/entertainment. This was the age of Spuds McKenzie (the randy canine mascot for Budweiser), the Old Milwaukee Swedish Bikini Team (uh-huh), and perhaps the most obviously ironic character from this era, Joe Isuzu, the ironically dishonest car salesman. The joke about Joe, of course, was that he was the exactly we should expect from a corporate mascot; we had already reached the conclusion that they were all dishonest. But Joe Isuzu was different. He was an official corporate liar. And because he was a character, not a real person -- an important point which I will come back to later on in the series -- consumers loved him.
At the start of this decade, we began to see more of these characters, and it was no surprise that most came out of the "sin" industries who were learning that irony is an effective tool for using sex, drugs, and rock and roll to sell (from the Coors Light Twins early in the decade, to the more recent Bacardi & Cola parodies on 80's-era crime shows). The irony here is that their earlier attempts at irony -- e.g., Spuds McKenzie -- look rather straight and obvious in retrospect. Knowing this, the Anheuser Busch, in 2006 (the owner of Budweiser) launched a campaign to re-introducing the Rolling Rock brand which it has just recently acquired. The campaign was nothing but wink-wink/nod-nod. Here was the brief for the ad guys: Rolling Rock has a regional (East Coast) brand that appeals to a more earnest crowd than, say Budweiser, which the earnest crowd associates with the cheesy days of Spuds McKenzie (see where this is going?). Solution:
*Post the commercial exclusively on YouTube, but pretend that it aired on TV and apologize for it.
*Create a fictitious VP of Marketing ("Ron Stablehorn"), and have him continue making apologies on a Web site and paid media (billboards and ultimately, yes, on TV, where the original commercial supposedly aired). You can read more about the Beer Ape here, my attempt at adding an additional layer of irony to this campaign).
How successful was the campaign? Hard to tell, but the Rolling Rock Beer Ape was the number-one video on YouTube in November 2006. Yet the real takeaway here is how far brands have progressed in testing the limits of irony. In an age where transparency and honesty are the watchwords in marketing, a large contingent of Web-dwellers responded positively to this massive inside joke.
Which brings me to the final section of this post -- clowns who serve the role of making the hero look good. We've seen this character over the years in different forms and disguises. One is the comic villain (think of the scheming insects in the Raid commercials, foiled every time, whatever they do). This follows a tradition in theatre and film that later found its way into TV storylines, cartoons, and advertising (think of the coyote in Road Runner). But a purer form of this clown type comes another comedy tradition: the pairing of the "straight man" and the clown.
If you are a fan of sitcoms, you know the straight man. He, or she, is the one who stays sane while everybody else spirals out of control. As the label suggests, he stays straight, while others lose their balance. In sitcoms, the straight man works well with a team of clowns (e.g., Seinfeld), or with just a single clown (think Sanford & Son). In stand-up, he works better in couples (think Abbott & Costello, Martin & Lewis, Penn & Teller). In commercials, of course it's difficult to pull this off except in couples. But when it happens, the result can be quite effective.
Most obvious example of this? I would have to vote for the Mac/PC commercials. Both characters are played by established actors (Justin Long plays the Mac guy; John Hodgman, of Daily Show fame, plays the PC guy). As the clown, of course, the PC guy gets the best lines. So much so, I've heard people complain that the commercials can't possibly be effective "because the PC guy is funnier." But both the logic of the spots and the commercial success that Apple has had suggest otherwise. No matter what the PC guy does, no matter what he says, the Mac guy stands straight and looks cool. Of course, Apple is betting that a fair number of consumers are projecting themselves onto the Mac character -- in fact, by having the two characters stand side-by-side, occupying an equal amount of space (on the clean screen that Apple commercials are famous for) suggests that the market is equally divided -- an audacious statement for a company that owns such a small slice of that market. But it appears to be working. Just today I read that Mac OS X now enjoys a 10% market share, the first time since Net Applications began tracking the use of operating systems on personal computers.
In the meantime, behold the PC guy, who's standing right here, looking like a cool Obama next to the PC guy's McCain. And for the first time in this series, we have a hero on camera, though you wouldn't know it because he's saying little, and moving even less. Of course, he's been there all along. What I will look at in the next post is why we didn't notice.