Old-Fashioned Charm

FedEx solves modern business woes in funny retro setups

First we got the return of Duran Duran; now this new FedEx campaign clearly harks back to the very funny work the company ran in the early 1980s, when it was still Federal Express. Can frightfully oversized eyewear be far behind?

Back in the day when the average shoulder pad was the size of a flotation device, one of the best remembered and most award-winning FedEx commercials was “Fast Paced World,” from now-defunct Ally & Gargano. Freakishly fast talker John Moschitta—ear glued to a big black phone receiver with a curly cord—did deals, called meetings, moved people and generally parodied the self-important banter of business management (“Pittsburgh’s perfect Peter: Peter, may I call you Pete?”). At the end, the announcer said, “In this fast-moving, high-pressure, get-it-done-yesterday world, aren’t you glad there’s one company that can keep up with it all?” Ironically, that hurried world existed when personal computers and faxes were new, and way before the advent of ICPDA (Internet, cell phones, PDAs, etc). That was also a time when ground shipping was what FedEx was created to avoid.

Offices looked different then—none of this everybody-has-a-flat-screen-and-an-Aeron-chair business. And the people who inhabit them now are likewise cooler and sleeker and more high-tech. These eight new commercials from BBDO suggest a schlumpier time in business, when middle-aged men were grim-faced and baggy-eyed, and wearily trudged out the door at 5 p.m. There’s a comfort in that—and something warm and amusing about these spots. (The tagline, “Relax, it’s FedEx,” also expresses a sense of relief.)

Take the gray-haired guy in the half-sleeved drip-dry shirt and wide tie, standing under a gold clock with sunbeams. He enters the dreary office space of an early-twentysomething kid playing with a pencil like a fevered 4-year-old. “Did those shipments get to Detroit this morning?” he asks. The kid says, “They’re gonna be a few days late,” continuing the business with the pencil. “Did you use FedEx like I asked you?” the older guy says, looking at the floor, stifling emotion, perhaps seconds away from a heart attack. “No,” the kid says. “Remind me why I hired you?” the quietly exasperated boss asks. “You’re my dad,” the pencil pusher replies.

Without director Frank Todaro’s inspired casting and framing, the spot could have fallen flat. (The gray-haired guy is a familiar actor, the optometrist in a recent Snickers commercial and one of the Malachi brothers on Happy Days, right before Fonzie jumped the shark.) But the oblivious perverseness of the kid and the poignant frustration of the dad really work.

In a sort of reversal of that spot, there’s another featuring a middle-aged guy in a half-sleeved shirt and wide tie (who also has a comb-over, for added effect). He walks through a factory ranting and raving about some shipping problem until a young buck responds with the word that shuts him up: “FedEx.” The setup and payoff is familiar enough, except that the two guys are Chinese, and the entire dialogue is in Cantonese, with no subtitles. It’s like a Twilight Zone version of a commercial we’ve seen before—but it certainly makes the idea of shipping to Asia memorable.

A new service, home delivery by appointment, becomes unforgettable in a spot featuring yet another dumpy guy. With a nod to modern male grooming habits, this customer is half-naked, with a red chest, a loofah mitt and love handles dangling over his towel. He’s on the phone with an Internet business, excoriating them for delivering his package at the exact time he ordered it. “No one comes when they say they will. I was in the middle of a complicated exfoliation,” he explains from his harvest gold kitchen. The operator doesn’t want to hear more—neither do we. The spot is hilarious.

The idea of ease and reliability is drilled in over and over again, as with the guy who works up a Woody Allen-level neurosis about ground delivery: “We have packages going ground in trucks, and there are no problems? This is a problem,” he says, girding himself for disaster.

But the all-time crowd-pleaser of the campaign is “Drama.” It’s got a Comedy Central/ Saturday Night Live feeling, as two guys in the mailroom maniacally ham it up, Jon Lovitz-thespian style, about the rigors of sending an overnight package to Houston. “Good gravy, man,” the first one thunders, looking at the heavens. “If we don’t get this here by 8 a.m. tomorrow, we’ll all be doomed! Doomed!” His fellow Shakespearean (actually more William Shatnerian) actor responds, “What if I get a nasty paper cut? We’ll be doomed!” The repetition of “Doomed!” goes on for a bit, until the announcer says, “You can try. We’ve taken all the drama out of shipping overnight. Relax, it’s FedEx.” It’s a great payoff for a charmer of a spot.

I liked the overwriting of the previous campaign (fast talkers, part deux), but it now seems too precious compared with this series. This campaign covers all the bases of shipping in the Internet and cell phone world with old-fashioned ease and humor. Off-kilter characters with comic problems have become the way FedEx takes care of business: by making fun of business.