Barbara Lippert’s Critique: Shiny Happy People

If the cultural historians of the future compare American ads of the mid-20th century with those of the early 21st, they’ll notice that we’ve moved from a consumer society obsessed with cleaning our houses (and getting rid of nasty odors and whitening our laundry) to a consumer society even more obsessed with cleaning our mouths (and getting rid of nasty odors and whitening our teeth).

Building on this mouths-are-our-new-homes metaphor, these days we are even decorating and “accessorizing” our houses o’ teeth. And obviously, the home-improvement project du jour is bleaching and whitening. In place of the yellowish-tending, ill-fitting Chicklets of capped teeth past (usually worn with bad toupees), we now have an enormous array of whitening systems and (Da Vinci!) veneers. Likewise, chewing-gum companies are rolling out an ever-growing number of line extensions, many of which feature whitening.

Of course, Americans have always been known for their big healthy white choppers, as opposed to the little brown stumps rotting in the mouths of stereotypical Europeans. But ironically, all the sophisticated oral chews and mints—Altoids, Mentos, Orbit—seem to originate in Europe.

Way back when, I used to think that the parallel-universe sensibility of Mentos commercials was the unintentional result of something lost in translation. But evidently, the “freshmaker” got hip early on to the translated-from-the-German-by-way-of—South-America weirdness and started cashing in on that very quality to signal cool. Altoids has always done hilarious work in visual nerd-dom to convey otherworldly hipsterism and a higher form of mint. (Even the very American Trident, with its four-out-of-five-dentists earnestness of ads past, now has gone with dark and edgy deadpan humor to explain what happened to the fifth dentist.)

Orbit, the gum that comes in the über-designed package, was launched here in September 2001 with a highly stylized and campy TV campaign that also made fun of the faux science of “instant relief” ads.

That campaign has presented the new oral cool mostly in the form of Vanessa, Orbit’s spokesperson. Part social scientist, part British ditz, she deems most things “Fabulous!” The first spot took place at a mock institute, but nearly all the executions involve getting mud all over the subject, who, upon trying sugar-free Orbit, nevertheless manages to smile radiantly (so blazingly, in fact, that a visual twinkle appears, accompanied by a ping. The twinkle/ping is the funniest part—like what dishwasher-soap ads used to do to show “no spots” on glassware). Vanessa explains, “Your mouth will have a good clean feeling, no matter what.”

Vanessa’s jaunty scarf (worn even with a shirt and tie) and mod outfits remind me of 1960s go-go Pan-Am-attendant culture. And she also has that Alfie-era sex thing happening when she talks about cleaning up a “duhty mouth.”

With its stylized look and sound, the campaign, via BBDO in Chicago, is entertaining and memorable. And through countless executions, Orbit—now the third-top-selling gum brand—has managed to sustain the fun tone.

Now we go from Vanessa’s signature “Fabulous!” to an equally superlative “Brilliant!” as she introduces Orbit White. The spots are similar, but the joke here is that the smile will go from blazing white to radioactive.

For maximal visual oddness and humor, the spots were shot in Sweden, where even the prefab houses come in prettier colors and the hedges are better and the mailboxes are cuter. The funnier of these two spots focuses on a female school-bus driver. As with church organ players, there’s something amusing about watching a large foot, in a sensible shoe, hit the pedal. The school kids, all in striped polos, clamber aboard and, as they pass the driver, throw spitballs, cookies and other oddities at her head. No problemo—she’s still smiling in stupefaction. (There’s a lightning-quick cut in which the driver’s head, complete with detritus-covered-hair, is surrounded by a halo of light.) Outside the bus, a white-suited Vanessa announces, “A dazzling smile, no matter what.” A car coming in the other direction runs off the road from the brightness—a quick, absurd topper.

The second spot employs a way-overused conceit—a postman in shorts getting bitten by dogs along his route. There is one hilarious touch—after Mr. Postal chews the gum, an action that triggers triumphant horns and the aforementioned halo, two sunflowers actually change direction to bow to him. The pacing and direction are quick and funny, and again, by parodying the benefit, the benefit is stressed. But along with chomping squirrels (Dentyne) and ferrets, the whole getting-bitten-up-by-furry-little-vipers school of laughs has been pretty much done. And a recent Mentos spot uses the spitball-in-the-hair idea.

I like the saintly halo and the flourish of horns. And I can understand building on a good thing. But maybe we’re reaching our limits on Euro-deadpan funny—the satellite spots don’t feel as fresh as the mother campaign. So, I guess just as those who sold household cleaning products past also learned, whiter is harder to prove than cleaner.


Orbit White


BBDO, Chicago

Chief creative officer

Marty Orzio

Creative group head

Jim Hyman


Dave Schiff

Art director

Frank Dattalo

Executive producer

Diane Jackson

Agency producer

Lisa von Drehle

Production co.



The Perlorian Brothers/Biscuit

Edit house

Peep Show via

Cosmo Street