Recycling The Past

Has watching TV seemed a little nostalgic lately? At a time when the power of a TV spot buy is being unravelled, some advertisers and their ad agencies are dipping into their advertising archives, revisiting classic hits from the 1970s and 1980s with remakes of the originals or simply running the old ones with a few tweaks. Over the past several months, Coca-Cola, Orville Redenbacher and Alka-Seltzer have all brought back decades-old classic spots. But does the trend mean clients are capitalizing on established brand equity, or just out of new ideas? Is focusing on the past really a good idea?

Bayer Corp. recently remade one of advertising’s most famous ads, Alka-Seltzer’s “I can’t believe I ate the whole thing” 1972 ad by Wells Rich Greene, New York. Alka-Seltzer and its current agency, BBDO in New York, chose to hardly update the ad at all. Instead, they reshot the ad virtually verbatim with two contemporary actors, Peter Boyle and Doris Roberts of Everybody Loves Raymond.

“We didn’t want to bring back old footage,” says Jay Kolpon, vp for marketing and new business at Bayer Consumer Care division in Morristown, N.J. “We made it with 2006 characters, and wanted to bring back the famous message, the great message, ‘I can’t believe I ate the whole thing.'”

The strategy for the remake was twofold: to celebrate the antacid’s 75th anniversary and to re-emphasize the selling point of the product as a solution for overindulgence or feeling too full, Kolpon says.

Alka-Seltzer’s remake, which broke last month, is “really strong,” says Cheryl Swanson, president of brand strategy consultancy Toniq in New York. “It’s a good idea when you have a brand with advertising that has high positive recall 20 to 25 years later,” she says.

Still, some creatives, such as Mark DiMassimo, CEO and cd of DiMassimo in New York, aren’t sure Alka-Seltzer’s ad resonates today. “To me, it doesn’t feel as good as it felt back then,” he says. “It feels a little forced.”

Coca-Cola also took a trip down memory lane last year to launch its new calorie-free cola Zero using a decades-old ad concept, and, like Alka-Seltzer, made it modern. However, instead of sticking to the original script, Coca-Cola’s agency for Zero, Crispin Porter + Bogusky in Miami, reinterpreted the spot with a modern take on the togetherness theme. So last June, the agency introduced the brand with a remake of Coca-Cola’s memorable “Hilltop” feel-good spot from 1971. The team wanted to create an ad that emphasized its core “Coke”-ness and its new attributes: It tastes more like Coke than Diet Coke, but has zero calories. “We wanted to establish a closeness to Coke, so we thought about things that are part of Coke’s heritage and DNA,” says Coca-Cola representative Susan McDermott. “‘Hilltop’ struck us a something we could update and make current today, to say there’s still a close connection to Coke within a new brand.”

In “Hilltop,” created by McCann Erickson in New York, a group of multicultural youths gather on a hilltop to sing “I’d like to buy the world a Coke.” The famous ad had already been updated once before, also by McCann, for a Super Bowl ad in 1990 that showed a reunion with some of the people from the original ad and their children.

This time, for “Chilltop,” the agency moved the group of young adults to an urban rooftop, electrified the song with hip-hop singer G. Love (Garrett Dutton) and changed the lyrics to “I’d like to teach the world to chill,” to make the ad more current than the saccharine, ultra-earnest original.

“‘Hilltop’ focused on the external idea of harmony, while ‘Chilltop’ focused on inner harmony, the state of mind called ‘chilling,'” says McDermott, who adds that the company knew the inherent risks of remaking such a beloved ad, but the potential to capitalize on the equity of the original was worth it. “With any kind of remake, be it a movie or ad, you’re going to get differing opinions.”

McDermott says she doesn’t have specific results around the ad, but judges the overall Coke Zero launch to be a success. “You can’t tie movement of the brand only to advertising,” she says. “Based on the most recent data, it is continuing to grow a 0.9 share, which is significant in the soft-drink world.”

The ad industry, however, gave the spot mixed reviews. “I think ‘Chilltop’ is really good,” says Richard Kirshenbaum, co-chairman of Kirshenbaum Bond + Partners, New York. “They utilize equity in a contemporary way. I think it’s a delicate balance, to redo the past, honor the past and do something new.”

Adweek ad critic Barbara Lippert said the spot was lukewarm at best. “It’s not a terrible spot,” she wrote in her review of the remake. “But given the agency and the power of the original ad, it lives in some safe but compromised middle ground: not quite edgy enough to be a breakout hit among the youngins who weren’t even born in 1971, not quite emotional and nostalgic enough to extract a tear from the aging eyes of baby boomers.”

Fran Kelly, Arnold Worldwide president and COO and author of The Breakaway Brand, says the remake was too much of a throwback for a brand trying to make itself relevant now. “It’s a brand struggling for a place in the world today,” he says. “It seemed a little confusing to pull something from 20 years ago.”

The mixed opinions about Coke’s “Chilltop” and the Alka-Seltzer ad suggest remaking an old ad may not be worth it. So why is it so prevalent these days? Trend consultant Swanson has one theory. “Certain brands do have that kind of historical cachet because there is this yearning backwards, yearning for simplicity,” she says. “[Old ads] recall a perception of when times were simpler, less complex. There’s an aspiration toward that now.”

Not only is there a desire for a culturally and socially simpler time, but according to DiMassimo, there is an industry yearning for a simpler media landscape too. “There’s a real nostalgia for the mass market,” he says. “The nature of the advertising business today is all the fragmentation and targeting and media. It means that great [campaigns] are happening, but most people don’t know about them. We don’t have these ‘chocolate, vanilla, strawberry’ campaigns that everybody knows. There’s a nostalgia for that time and the simplicity associated with it. In a way, the past has come into style.”

Cliff Freeman, chairman and chief creative officer of Cliff Freeman and Partners in New York, who has created iconic campaigns that have run for decades for brands such as York Peppermint Patty, and Almond Joy’s “Sometimes you feel like a nut, sometimes you don’t” ads that ran for 25 years, is not a fan of the recent remakes. He found the Alka-Seltzer ad “dreadful,” but acknowledges that a younger generation not familiar with the original may feel differently.

And don’t get Freeman started on “Chilltop.” “Now there’s an example of a disaster, in my opinion,” he says. “That commercial was so true to its time and so simple and pure. And this version was so annoying. The people were so obviously just kind of like slackers that felt and exhibited no emotion in particular, and that [original] campaign was based on enormous emotion. [The remake] had nothing to do with the product.”

Freeman doesn’t think most of the ads he has created, even his most famous, would do well updated today. “Bringing back ‘Where’s the Beef’ [for Wendy’s] would be a terrible idea, although using the line might work,” he says. “Because it was just one of those bolt-of-lightning magical happenings. Casting was 90 percent of it. You could never repeat that.”

In Freeman’s opinion, it’s the very complex and competitive nature of the business today that is giving rise to the remakes. “It’s very challenging to break through nowadays,” he says. “More people in advertising are trying to sell a product through entertainment than ever before, so people are trying everything they can think of to be impactful.”

One of the trickiest scenarios faced by agencies contemplating remaking classic concepts is when the famous ads were built around a familiar face, the owner of a company or a long-running spokesperson, who is no longer alive. Dunkin’ Donuts recently began airing a tribute spot to Michael Vale, the actor who played the donut maker in spots since 1982 and died last month. Orville Redenbacher and its agency, CP+B, last month tackled this dilemma head-on, rerunning a 1970s ad featuring Redenbacher, who died in 1995. The only way the ad was modernized was by showing microwave popcorn at the end and pointing consumers to the Web address. “We wanted to tap into the core equities of the brand, and that took us straight to Orville Redenbacher,” says Garth Neuffer, senior director of product public relations at ConAgra. “Plus, those old spots are so classic, they deserve another airing.”

Rich Silverstein, co-chairman and co-creative director of Goodby, Silverstein & Partners in San Francisco, calls it the “here’s the dead man” syndrome. “It’s a little weird when you bring back the Wendy’s guy or Redenbacher,” he says. “But there might be a piece that you could use. In theory, I’m not against bringing back pieces, it’s just how you package it.”

The smartest way to leverage a brand’s history without it seeming dated or backwards-looking, argue brand experts, may be to take pieces, like a line or an idea, from the past, instead of the entire ad. Silverstein revisited classic lines when working on Porsche and AT&T Wireless. “Reach out and touch someone,” he says. “You can’t get much better than that. Certain lines are just there, and work. “

KB+P’s Kirshenbaum has also used pieces of classics when appropriate. The agency resurrected the Meow Mix jingle, for example, in a 2002 ad that showed cats watching a 1976 Meow Mix spot. “I found it astonishing at the time they weren’t using the jingle,” he says. “It’s something consumers really related to and understood. If you don’t do that, you’re dismantling a tangible asset.”

Still, he says he probably wouldn’t remake or rerun a classic ad in its entirety. “I don’t like the idea of redoing something as much as I like the idea of exploring equity,” says Kirshenbaum, whose agency is developing an ad strategy for 1980s brand Tab for a campaign later this year. “We honored the heritage, and moved it into the future.”

In other words, those considering revisiting a vintage ad should take a hint from Brylcreem’s classic jingle: “A little dab’ll do ya.”