Fallon Evolves PBS Makeover

Fallon’s fanciful “Fish” spot for PBS was nominated for an Emmy this year. So the challenge for the Minneapolis agency was to have the follow-up campaign, as its theme says, “Be more.”

Ranging in tone from mystical to humorous, four spots breaking this month were done with the help of top-notch talent, including Shine director Scott Hicks and Chicago cinematographer Dion Beebe, not to mention a well-behaved skunk. “Be more,” the stand-alone tagline last year, remains as a theme this year and is followed by various adjectives that communicate PBS brand values.

A spot tagged “Be more courageous” shows people the world, from news reporters to dignitaries, tossing a hot potato around until it lands in the hands of a PBS executive, who carries it into his office building. “Be more independent” shows marionettes cutting their cords and leaving a stage. “Be more connected” features glowing people passing along positive auras they received by watching PBS. And “Be more open-minded” shows a skunk that appears to be intruding into a home but is actually part of the family.

When the “Be more” campaign began last year, the goal was to change the perception of PBS from “dry or dusty or boring” to “inspiring and fun,” says Lesli Rotenberg, client svp of brand management and promotion. Executions showed a goldfish jumping to freedom and orchestra members destroying their instruments on stage like rock stars. “This year,” Rotenberg says, “I think what we’ve done is fine-tuned it and honed in on core values that make PBS unique.” Words like open-minded capture those values, which “commercial broadcasters can’t claim,” she says.

Mike Gibbs, Fallon group head and copywriter on the spots, says picking the right words “was a considerable struggle. We were trying to find things that fit the best, that feel like they come from PBS.” For the hot-potato ad, for example, Gibbs and his team considered using “brave” instead of “courageous.” But they felt that “brave” was too chest-pounding, he says.

PBS itself is more of a presence in this round of ads. In addition to featuring the PBS executive in the hot-potato spot, the campaign shows the family TV tuned to PBS in the skunk spot. “We wanted to make sure we were connecting PBS content with the values in the ads, so little hints of PBS show up, almost like subtle gestures,” Rotenberg says.

But the bigger-picture branding goals and focus on creativity remain the same. “Creatively, we were just trying to keep the bar up at a [‘Fish’] level. That really set a high standard for us,” says Gibbs.

To do that, Fallon enlisted production company Independent Media in Los Angeles, which worked on “Fish,” and used one of the directors from last year, François Girard (The Red Violin, Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould), who directed this year’s “Aura” and “Potato.” Since the campaign’s other director, Hicks, is based in Australia, all the ads were shot in Melbourne. The process took three weeks, including two days of shooting for each spot.

Hicks says he signed on because of his respect for PBS and because Fallon was willing to travel to him. “I am a great supporter of the notion of public broadcasting,” he says. “It was wonderful that they were prepared to come out to my neighborhood. … It saved a week of travel to and fro.”

Hicks had never worked with Beebe but requested him as a cinematographer because of his “strong stylistic eye,” which Hicks figured would be useful in crafting different looks for the spots. The same exacting standards were applied to the props and talent, as well. The marionettes were handmade and shipped in from Prague. Professional puppeteers were located in Sydney, and they gave puppet shows to an audience of children so the reactions wouldn’t seem staged.

“We were looking for very subtle reactions that weren’t too overly expressive,” Hicks says. “You don’t want children to act, you want them to react. … That little boy in there, he was so transfixed by the puppets, it was wonderful. No amount of acting is able to give you that. It feels very real in what is otherwise a fantasy.”

The skunk spot was an entirely different experience. In the ad, a skunk wanders into a house, drinks from a toilet bowl, hides under laundry and narrowly misses being spotted by several family members. Only when it finally snuggles up to the father, who is sleeping, does it become clear that the skunk is a family pet. Not only did the ad have to be more naturalistic than the others, there were logistical problems to overcome—namely, skunks are not native to Australia, and importing one turned out to be a headache.

The skunk, named “Puppy,” is a celebrity in his own right, with a plum role in Dr. Doolittle 2. But he had to be quarantined and implanted with a microchip before he could enter the country. Once on set, however, he was a pro, waddling up to the actor in bed and cuddling with him breezily. “I never thought it would come down to working with skunks,” Hicks admits, but “I thought it did a good job.”

All in all, the process went smoothly, says Hicks. “Working with very high-end people on a very focused, concentrated piece of energy really makes it a lot of fun,” he says.