By Ed Thompson
The other night, I heard the sounds of a basketball game being played in my backyard. The editors and writers of National Review were playing three-on-three versus the characters from the Hanna-Barbara cartoon, Jonny Quest. On offense were William F. Buckley, Jr., Rich Lowry and Jonah Goldberg. Defending were Tim Matheson, Bandit, and “Race” Bannon, and they were getting their asses kicked. Who knew Bill Buckley was such a monster three-point shooter?
The preceding event was taken from an actual dream, which I had sometime last winter. It proves two things. One, I am an absolutely huge dork. Two, that images are very powerful things, but, only if the images are familiar.
First, if you didn’t know that National Review was a widely read, conservative news magazine, chances are the only name you might recognize would be that of William F. Buckley, Jr. He’s been widely parodied by comics like Robin Williams and others for many years. But Rich Lowry and Jonah Goldberg? Next, if you didn’t watch Saturday morning cartoons back in the ‘60s, you’d never know who the heck Jonny Quest, Bandit, or “Race” Bannon were, or that a young Tim Matheson was the voice of Jonny Quest himself.
When we’re writing our commercials, our clients are expecting a lot from us. We’re telling them that they have to be relevant to the listener to make an impact in their lives. So when we come up with a spot that is a little too out there for them, it’s no wonder they revert back to airing a spot that talks about their friendly, knowledgeable staff and lowest prices in town. If we’re going to use the power of images, they must be images that a large part of the audience will recognize in an instant. Because that instant is all we get.
Still, occasionally a client comes along that’ll roll the dice. In the mid ‘90s, I created a Christmas campaign which used three main characters: a jeweler, a moose, and an elf. These were easy images for the listeners to wrap their minds around. The jeweler was the actual owner of the store, a man named Gary and he played himself. I provided the voices for the other characters. The script for spot number one in the campaign follows:
SFX: shopping mall ambience w/Christmas music over loudspeaker under
Employee #1: Gary, there’s a… moose here to see you.
Gary: A what?
Moose: Are you Gary Jones of Jones Jewelers?
Moose: Here you are.
SFX: Paper shuffling or envelope opening
Gary: A letter from Santa?
Moose: What didja expect? Fan mail from some flounder?
Gary: An N&N Inspection? What’s that?
Moose: That would be the Naughty and Nice Inspection. Just wanted to see if you’re up to Santa’s Nice standards for service, selection and savings.
Gary: Absolutely. Wait. You’re a moose. Doesn’t Santa usually use reindeer?
Moose: No doubt about. But the moose impression was easier for the voice-over guy to do.
Jingle up & out
Disclaimer: Character voices impersonated.
Now, you may have guessed, I made the moose sound like Bullwinkle from the cartoon, The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle. Well, hell! How else would a moose sound? I created in the listeners mind a powerful and somewhat iconic image which they could suspend disbelief and get on board for what could be a fun ride. Plus, I broke the “fourth wall” and let the listener know that I knew they were in on the joke. Remember, the listener hates to be BS’ed. When we give them credit for being intelligent, they appreciate it.
The second spot dealt with Moose preparing Gary for the N&N Inspection, which would be conducted by an elf named Bob. The story picks up with Gary saying…
Moose: Go easy on him. He’s had it kind of rough.
Gary: Whattaya mean?
Moose: Well you see, when Bob was young, all the other elf kids used to laugh and call him names.
Gary: So they never let poor Bob play in any elfin games?
Gary: Too bad.
Jingle up & out
The images I used here were, of course, borrowed from the song Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer. Close enough to resemble the original but changed enough to avoid any possible copyright issues (I hoped).
Spot number three was the long-awaited N&N Inspection. Cue Bob.
Bob: Are you Gary Jones of Jones Jewelry?
Bob: My name is Bob.
Bob: (Sigh) Yes. I’m Bob. Is there a problem?
Gary: Um, no. It’s just that I’ve never seen a six-foot ten-inch elf before.
Bob [growing frustrated and more intimidating]: What? You think an elf can’t be this tall? Do you think we’re all just three feet tall and jolly all the live-long day? Hmm? Hmm?
Gary: No! [Pause] By the way, I really like your size 15 pointed shoes.
Bob meet Broca. Unexpected and unpredictable, Bob made this campaign explode like dynamite. I don’t care who you are. You know exactly what a 6’10" elf named Bob who wears size 15 pointed shoes looks like. There was no print, no web, no TV. The campaign was radio only, and Gary had his best Christmas sales on record. What’s more, people actually came into the store and asked him where Bob was. That is the power of images. Yet, had I used other images, which might have been too obscure, weird or without emotional attachment, the campaign would have fallen flat on its face.
But what about the basketball game? Okay. Here’s how I turned an absolute dork’s dream into a commercial:
Voice 1: Did you ever have that dream? You know, the one where your high school janitor, a tattooed sailor, and Lisa the delivery girl from Cheesy Pete’s Pizza are playing three-on-three basketball in your back yard against your wife’s gynecologist, Sir Isaac Newton, and a Tyrannosaurus Rex.
Annc: It’s March Madness. Catch every game of the NCAA Basketball Tournament right through the Final Four right here on 1620 The Zone, Omaha’s ESPN Radio.
Voice 1: I mean, who knew a T-Rex could shoot with such little arms?