Dick Sittig, in Situ

LOS ANGELES Visiting 8-year-old Penn Sittig peers earnestly through director of photography Larry Fong’s lens as Penn’s father, Dick Sittig, works on a Jack in the Box spot, staring intently at a playback monitor on a Hollywood stage.

For Sittig, founding principal and CCO of independent Secret Weapon Marketing, Santa Monica, Calif., directing the Jack in the Box spots, as well as providing the voiceover for the plastic-headed Jack character, has become almost child’s play.

At a clip of about 20 a year, Sittig has made about 400 Jack in the Box spots since that day in 1995, in the wake of the chain’s e coli disaster, when the client and “50 people from Chiat\Day came to the set to make sure I didn’t f*** up” directing and voicing his first spot.

Staring at a shot setup of Jack counseling a man traumatized by bad sandwiches of his past, Sittig makes decisions in situ — Bermuda shorts, two-day beard, tennis shirt, a prototypical director’s look. Sittig asks the actor playing Jack to turn his head and reveal a deadpan mouth (Jack has a series of heads, each with its own slightly different facial expression). Sittig starts the line “Ever fantasize about hot dogs?” and then has Jack turn toward the camera in reaction. He asks Jack to flip open his notebook. “No, too big,” he recants. Gradually he refines the one shot to become three distinct comic beats evoking as many laughs.

“For me the target is three guys who hang Sheetrock for a living, sitting three across in a pickup truck, coming to lunch,” Sittig says. “To me, that’s fast food.” He recalls that whenever they’ve done a spot a little too clever, more likely to impress other creative directors, he thinks about his working-class heroes, covered in dust. “If they’re engaged, then we’re doing our job. If you’re only making your ad friends laugh, that’s not going to work,” he says.

And the laughter’s what makes the work satisfying, Sittig says. Asked if he would have lasted 400 spots on a campaign that wasn’t carried by humor, he says, “No. It’s like episodic television. It has to be familiar enough for you to want to tune in each time and different enough to hold your interest.”

In another scene, another actor pours mustard on his finger, pretending it’s a hot dog and recalling his mother. As soon as he hears his own copy, Sittig tweaks the tone by converting the line from “mother” to “mama,” the type of spontaneous change directors can make when they’re also the creative director.

For Sittig, it’s tough to separate the pleasure he gets from the raw act of directing — including its share of tabletop tedium — from the creative director’s thrill of his vision coming to life.

Greg Joumas, a former Detroit automotive marketer turned Jack in the Box’s vp of marketing, leaves early, while Sittig is recording “wild” audio track for editing on set. Once the concept is approved, he has total confidence in Sittig as the font of Jack’s continuity. Sittig uses practically the same crew, “a well-oiled machine,” for each shoot, and the client gives him “a lot of autonomy,” including all the crucial casting decisions.

If Jack isn’t exactly an ad hoc persona for Sittig, he’s nonetheless the “gatekeeper” of the character. “We’re able to touch on some taboo subjects because Jack always has some distance from it. Carl’s Jr. relishes crossing that line and wallowing around in it,” Sittig says of the rival chain’s spots, which have included appearances by Hugh Hefner and a sudsy Paris Hilton. “Whereas Jack can watch two girls bouncing around having a pillow fight and it has to do with a focus group, he’s not indulging himself in that moment. He’s an innocent,” he says.

That sense of innocence is, Sittig says, “the place to be for a mass product, especially food. You have to take the high ground. You can be irreverent, but I don’t believe you can be leering. We can touch on these subjects, but Jack gets to be at arm’s length from the subject. We kind of have it both ways. The young male audience laughs at an Angus [beef] joke [a spot in which competitors’ ‘anus’ burgers is implied], and Jack gets to say, ‘I don’t want to talk about it.’ “

Sittig chides Crispin Porter + Bogusky’s Burger King icon (though he admires the work itself). “I think [Jack spots] work so well that Burger King went out and pretty much copied it with the King,” he says. “And now the King also has a son.”

“How many plastic-headed characters whose facial features don’t move can you have in the hamburger category before it becomes a rip-off?” Sittig asks rhetorically, with a pained smile. “That’s a little close.”

Sittig says he took to directing — he signed with @radicalmedia — as a natural extension of describing a spot to art directors, cinematographers and clients. But he learned a lot by watching Mark Story direct “Joe Liar” Isuzu spots when Sittig was at Della Femina Travisano & Partners. Sittig had already developed a self-described “sick sense of comedy” writing Albertsons radio copy, where he would mischievously group “catsup, tuna and tampons” on sale.

With Secret Weapon’s self-imposed three-client limit (the others are currently Clearwire and Southern California Honda Dealers), Sittig says he has no illusions about becoming the next TBWA\Chiat\Day. He believes the challenge is keeping clients happy by keeping the long-running campaigns fresh. “I believe in the power of long campaigns. That’s what we set out to do,” he says. “I think that’s kind of a lost art. It’s like a growing asset for a client. If you have to re-create yourself every year or two, you’re starting from zero. And there’s so much media competing for customers. If you can be consistent, that helps form equity.

“We’re not competing with McDonald’s with our share of advertising, but have the benefit of all that equity behind us with all that Jack,” Sittig adds. “That’s the only way to compete against those with bigger budgets.”

Sittig describes how the retail message and brand message work together in Jack spots: “A lot of time the agency, during the honeymoon, goes off and does this fun brand work. And when that doesn’t work, the hammer comes down and they do all this awful retail work. I think everyone wins if you can blend those two ideas together.”

“I only have one narrow aptitude,” he says. “I know what’s funny.”