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Altoids, circa 1997

I wrote the above copy for Altoids in 1997. A year or so before, Mark Faulkner (art director) and I created the “Curiously Strong Mints” campaign for Altoids. The two of us would run this creatively driven account for about 7 years, producing myriad posters, print, ambient and digital pieces.

The campaign exploded into popular culture. Sales boomed. Within a couple years, Altoids became the number one selling mint in North America. Later, in a parlay with Life Savers candy, Kraft sold the brand to Wrigley for over 1.5 billion dollars. Pretty sweet, especially for a confection that wallowed in obscurity for over a century.

Those ads were game changers: for the client, for the agency, and thankfully for yours truly. Mark and I (plus a growing and talented team) would go on to win tons of creative awards for our work, including, in 1997, the $100,000 Grand Kelly Award for best print campaign in North America. Which, fortuitously, brings us back to the above execution: “Makes Other Mints Feel Inadequate.”

Imagine my surprise discovering it in the latest issue of People magazine! Holy crap. After all these years and all that history, they’re rerunning our ad. The headline. The typography. The color scheme. Save for a different (and in my opinion) crappier looking tin, it’s the same exact ad.

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I’m baaaaaack… as seen in People, May 2013

Big deal? Well, sort of. For whatever reasons, rerunning old advertising is unprecedented. Creative has a super short lifespan. Like cicadas, campaigns appear, create buzz, and then die. Precious few last longer than their first flight. Once gone, even the most successful ad campaigns stay that way. Yes, taglines or other assets get resurrected all the time. But never the ad itself.

Until this one.

What can I say? Of course I’m flattered. But seeing my ad after all these years is also discombobulating. Like running into your ex and her new beau. Altoids was and is so personal to me. I still remember pitching the above headline to my client. In fact, I recall telling them Altoids’ smart and cynical audience would appreciate a quirky word like “inadequate.” The subtle innuendo was highly intended. (As the brand grew, its widening audience would appreciate much sillier copy. But my favorite pieces always remained true to that “smart and cynical” core.)

So, having perhaps lost its way, is Altoids’ advertising returning to its base? Literally. Look, I don’t blame agency and client for rerunning our copy. There’s a whole new generation of “smart and cynical” out there. It’ll be new to them.

Special note: I discovered a website devoted entirely to Altoids advertising. In it, you’ll find “Inadequate” along with all the others, far as I can tell, pretty much in the order we produced them. I have no idea who hosts this site or why. Pretty cool, though.


“If you had my life you’d be tired too.”

Driving my daughters home the other day, I had on a sports radio channel (much to their chagrin) and it featured a Dos Equis commercial for The Most Interesting Man in the World. Everyone knows the advertising campaign, done by Euro RSCG in New York. When it first came out, this witty, unexpected idea took the world by storm, garnering much deserved praise from Adland as well as from everyone else with ears and eyes. Among its many virtues, The Most Interesting Man in the World was so unlike anything else in its category. While Miller Lite and Bud Light kept trying to make three dudes on a couch funny, Dos Equis eschewed all that in favor of an urbane, older rogue living a robust life of magnanimous proportions. A man of action, he spoke little but when he did it was fantastic: “I don’t always drink beer but when I do, I drink Dos Equis.” And the kicker: “Stay thirsty my friends!” Brilliant.

But… half way through the 60-second spot, my 12-year-old daughter makes a comment from the back seat: “The most interesting man doesn’t seem so interesting anymore.”

Excluding the much-deserved praise, I won’t criticize advertising done by my previous agency. Yet my kid’s observation made me curious: When does something get old? We are all familiar with the term, “jumping the shark” pointing to an exact time and place something heretofore wonderful becomes suddenly not. The term was coined over an episode of Happy Days. In it, a water-skiing Fonzie jumps a shark too prove his cool. Game over. Happy Days were no longer here again.

But many great things don’t implode so obviously. Rather they fade away like a summer romance. Something changes and we move on. More important things replace the cute lifeguard.

There’s a great episode of the Simpson’s where Bart becomes famous for one of his catch phrases: “I didn’t do it.” The whole world, Springfield anyway, seizes upon its boyish exuberance. Everyone in town begins using the line to get out of blame and then just for a laugh. “I didn’t do it” gets plastered on tee-shirts. Bart goes on Conan. Soon, however, everyone gets sick of the line, including Bart. His fame dies and he learns how transient such things are.

Despite its ever-growing legions of critics, we must note, ironically, that even after 20 years the Simpson’s franchise keeps chugging along.

Everything else has an expiration date, a point where the content isn’t good and/or appreciated anymore. Unfortunately, most people, places and things don’t realize this until it’s too late. Just ask Michael Jordan or Brett Farve. Look at certain long running TV shows. When Desperate Housewives first aired we were captivated. Now its stars are more famous for their real botched romances and, indeed, real housewives have become more popular. Ad campaigns are no different. After more than ten years my beloved “curiously strong” Altoids campaign is anything but. It may be sad but it is inevitable. One day something is “curiously strong” or “the most interesting” and then it isn’t.

Back in the day, when creatives presented ideas the question was always asked: Does it have legs? We’d answer in the affirmative, showing dozens of executions based on the core idea. But maybe all that that proved was we could beat a dead horse. Popular culture doesn’t like repetition. Familiarity breeds contempt. The moral: Try something else, my friends!


Yearning for what came before…

Retromania is the title of a new book by Simon Reynolds. I haven’t read it but it’s about “pop culture’s addiction to it’s own past.” Indeed, most new pop music does seem awfully familiar. Like a lot of people over 30, the first time I heard Lady Ga Ga’s “Born this Way” I immediately thought of Madonna. Looking at her does nothing to dispel the notion. What’s going on? By definition isn’t “pop” supposed to explode…out of nowhere?

I’ll never forget something my former creative partner, Mark Faulkner once told me in regard to his preference for modern architecture over older forms: “Why would anyone want to live in the past?”

It’s a good question (and one pertaining to far more than living arrangements). And the answer is a lot of us. The other day I read a story in the Chicago Tribune (the paper version) about four different area trend setters who make their hay on antiquated, lo-fi technology: buttons, magazines, cassettes and vinyl recordings. Trendsetters living in the past…


Owen Wilson pining for a “Movable Feast.”

The surprise sleeper movie of the summer is Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, a love letter to Paris but also to the recent past, in this case the Paris of Hemingway and Gertrude Stein. The main character in the movie, played by Owen Wilson, is a jaded screenwriter who yearns for a more romantic time in the most romantic city in the world. He wants to uproot his highly lucrative career in Hollywood (writing crappy blockbuster movies) and move to Paris, where he might finish his novel (not screenplay) about the caretaker of a nostalgia shop. There are layers and layers of “oldness” in the synopsis alone! Woody Allen, by way of his protagonist, pines for the “good old days,” or as Michael Kammen put it “history without guilt.”

This is not the first time Woody Allen has explored better times (Zelig) and it won’t be the last. Allen adores the past. And so do we. Though the contemporary (and mostly unfortunate) trend of reality TV is manifest, many of us make special exceptions for shows like Mad Men and Boardwalk Empire. The clothes were better. The sex was better. Men were men and women were women. And so on…

Nostalgia makes us feel good. And the examples are everywhere. I myself live in a renovated Victorian home. Unlike my former partner, I like the feel of old wood and the way the sun looks coming through a stained glass window. Parked on the street out front are Ford Mustangs, Dodge Challengers and Chevy Camaros; all cars that experienced halcyon days decades ago but are now back with a vengeance.


2011 Dodge Challenger (8-track not included)

The first blockbuster movie of the summer: Super 8.

In marketing parlance, we sometimes call this “retro chic.” At least that’s the phrase I used when talking about campaigns we did for Altoids and Johnny Walker. For GM, I wrote: “This is the new generation of Olds.”

Fetishizing the past for commercial purposes is big business. Fashion mines the 60’s and 70’s for its bold prints and collar shapes. A perfect pair of imperfect Levis can cost several thousand dollars. We all have and wear favorite tee shirts emblazoned with logos and messages from the recent past. Seeing us an alien might think Led Zeppelin and Adidas were modern things. And the alien would be right…sort of.


Adidas, more trendy than ever…

This could easily turn into a college dissertation. As a matter of fact here’s an excellent essay on the topic from the University of Virginia.

Last week, I had the pleasure and privilege of addressing the Federation of European Publicity Exterior (FEPE) on out of home (OOH) marketing. In case you couldn’t tell from their name, FEPE is the association for outdoor advertising in Europe. It is because of my lengthy experience with Altoids, and the resulting affiliation with the Outdoor Advertising Association of America (OAAA), that I found myself in Spain. I am passionate about outdoor advertising. Unlike the other mass media, I feel OOH is becoming more relevant in the 21st century, not less. And not just because of the obvious reasons, i.e. innovative technology and synergies with mobile. Below is a bit from my discussion, which I hope you find interesting. Bear in mind it was excerpted from an oral presentation. I was pointing to pictures while I spoke and I can’t include all of them here.

Along with social media, the new, new thing in outdoor advertising has been the explosion of digital technology. DOOH media spending will increase almost 60% from 2009 projections to 2013. We’ve all seen creative examples, tons of them already at this convention. Digital innovation has reinvented the medium. Yet, rather than feature more of these in my presentation, let’s look instead at some seemingly low-tech executions that, in my view, are as modern as anything out there.


Live roaches in plexi-glass!


Making the Chicago river Shamrock Shake green…

With these example we see the real power of outdoor advertising: an ages-old ability to generate ideas without QR codes, new technology or even electricity. Because of its old-fashioned pedigree, I think many of us try way too hard to prove how contemporary outdoor advertising is. We hasten to pimp the newest technology, arguing that it makes OOH competitive with all the other screens out there.

In the 70’s, digital watches were all the rage. So sleek, modern and cool, we all had to have one! And then we didn’t. We quickly rediscovered the timeless beauty of time. Now digital watches are just a curiosity. The ultimate irony: they are nostalgic!


Digital: far out and groovy!

I’m not suggesting digital formats are trite. Far from it. Its possibilities are endless and evolving. I’m just suggesting there’s something to be said for the old school as well. after all, the first sign one sees driving into Las Vegas says what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas as well as anything in the 21st century, maybe even more so.

I bracketed the above portion of my presentation with sections about signage, propaganda and popular culture. Signs comprised the very first ads on earth and will never become obsolete. I’ve shared some of these ideas on Gods of advertising before. If you are interested in my entire presentation to FEPE, please feel free to contact me.


Outdoor ads are old as man…


A good movie poster plants an image you can’t ignore…

Is there any form of advertising on earth more attractive, compelling and continuously relevant than good old movie posters? Sometimes sleazy, sometimes artful, a good movie poster transcends time and technology. Even as movies go online the posters for them remain forever an integral part of their launch and success.

It doesn’t even matter if a film is good or bad. Frankly, bad films usually have the coolest posters of all. For it is in the cult and horror genres where film posters come alive…and slice you to pieces!


Bloody good copy!

Horror films, especially, deliver the goods. The lone carriage from Rosemary’s Baby. That gruesome cracking egg from Alien, with its killer tagline: “In space no one can hear you scream.” How can one look away, let alone not see the movie?


So lurid, so beckoning… As a young boy, I remember being transfixed by these garish come-ons every time I passed by a theater or opened a newspaper. To me they encapsulated everything appealing about being 13 years old in America. Like comic book and album covers they had a certain something. Not only did I want to see the films they advertised, I wanted to own the posters as well, collect them, cherish them, frame them, and display them. And indeed I did. If my wife didn’t come along I probably still would.

To this day, I believe that certain something is what made the Altoids’ ad campaign so successful. Each execution –the good ones anyway- felt like the poster for an upcoming film. Whether salacious or funny or both, it promised something good.


We called her ‘Kitten with a Whip’

“Promising something good.” If that’s not the mission of any good ad I don’t know what is. Unfortunately, the big business of filmmaking has diminished the output of these gems. Nowadays, most movie posters are generic, offering little more than a film’s title and big portraits of the leading actor(s).

Blah! I especially loathe the cliché’s. Why does every other movie poster feature the lead actor holding a weapon? Do we need a gun pointed at us in order to see the movie? It worked with Rambo, yes, but loses something after, say, 100 million other movies.


Lose the piece, eh bro?

What about you, Gentle Reader? Are you as passionate about movie art as I am? What are some of your favorites? Is there a better tagline than the one for Alien?

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