We asked 10 creatives for the craziest concept they ever pitched. Five never saw the light of day, but daring clients gave the rest the green light.
Freakish ratlike creatures screech the praises of Quizno’s. A kinky-looking chicken with a submissive bent is brought to you by Burger King. We haven’t seen such strangeness since the days when dot-coms like Outpost and E*trade chucked gerbils at a wall or shimmied with a spokes-chimp. With bizarre ideas on the brain, we quizzed 10 creatives about the most outrageous ideas they’ve ever had the nerve to present. Some clients were up for the challenge; others wasted no time in shooting them down—or, as with Jim Ferguson’s chicken-on-a-rope pitch, reacted with stunned silence. The line between over-the-top and top-notch is razor thin. —with Jennifer Comiteau
JAMIE BARRETT: CANNED CAR
Crushed cars with people crawling out of them isn’t the first image car companies typically want to conjure up,” admits creative director Jamie Barrett. Nonetheless, a year ago his Goodby, Silverstein & Partners team pitched Saturn a safety spot for the L Sedan that for the first 20 seconds shows the car being placed in a huge industrial vice that crushes it into a cube the size of a large coffee table.
“Then the metal square starts to rustle a bit, and a couple of the twisted metal parts start to peel back,” Barrett explains. “From within this twisted cube a man squeezes his way out, dusts himself off and walks away unharmed. It’s a safe car, get it?” While the imagery was pretty unorthodox, says Barrett, “for pure memorability—and the strong safety message—we thought it was worth showing the client.”
The idea, which copywriter Chris Ford and art director Stephen Goldblatt helped create, was quickly nixed. “They appreciated us pushing the limits, but I got a hunch we won’t be re-presenting it anytime real soon,” Barrett says. Instead, Saturn took more kindly to “Warnings,” in which people in cars display signs revealing their obstacles to safe driving: A child in the backseat, for example, holds a sign to the window that says, “We’re not insured.”
Looking back, Barrett is just happy that the concept didn’t crush the client’s faith in the San Francisco shop. “To Saturn’s credit,” he says, “they didn’t fire us—and actually thought the idea was pretty cool.”
ROB SCHWARTZ: Brain on the run
How far is an old-line brokerage like Charles Schwab willing to go to trade on its founder’s legacy? Not quite as far as TBWA\Chiat\ Day was hoping when the Playa del Rey, Calif., office pitched the account in early 2000.
Creatives wanted to capitalize on the fact that Schwab is an actual person. “The name means a lot more than E*Trade or Merrill Lynch,” says copywriter Michael Collado. An early concept involved Schwab getting kidnapped, but these were the days when upstart brokerage E*Trade was putting dancing chimps in its ads, and the idea seemed a bit tame, recalls Collado. Seeking a “weird visual thing” instead, the team came up with a “disruptive way” to do an icon campaign, says ecd Rob Schwartz: Rather than show Schwab himself, the ads would make Schwab’s brain the star. “The idea was that Schwab is such the guru of investing that someone stole his brain,” explains Schwartz.
Each spot would follow clues as to where the brain had gone, says Collado. People in possession of the brain are found driving exotic sportscars or living in mansions. An announcer would end the spots with the line, “Now there’s an easier way to tap into Charles Schwab’s insight: investing research at Schwab.com.” Finally, says Collado, the brain is found in a mayonnaise jar outside a rest stop in Kansas City.
The team figured the shop’s reputation would give the brain idea a boost. “Chiat\Day is famous for doing stuff no one’s seen before, from the sock puppet to utilizing iconic figures like Gandhi or Frank Lloyd Wright for Apple,” says Collado. “It’s the responsibility of a creative agency to go into a pitch with work other agencies would not do. That’s what the client wants.”
But not in this case. “The clients were kind of amused but felt they needed to go in a more, uh, conservative direction,” says Schwartz. “Too bad—finding Schwab’s brain could have made those guys famous.”
GARY KOEPKE: TOO EDGY FOR MTV
If any client embraces weirdness, it’s MTV. So when Modernista! competed for an assignment celebrating the network’s 20th anniversary in 2001, the Boston shop intended to pitch ads that would be as “outrageous and controversial as possible,” says ecd Gary Koepke. But while MTV liked the results, its legal department was less enthused.
Koepke and ecd Lance Jensen presented fake album covers that juxtaposed rock stars with political events to illustrate MTV’s influence on pop culture. The Cobain Challenger Project positioned Nirvana’s frontman as an astronaut, combining an image of his eye with a shot of the Space Shuttle exploding. Copy read, “Seattle: We have a problem.” The Pope and Marilyn Manson adorned a cover for an album called Saints & Sinners.
“We were trying to be as socially relevant and culturally significant as possible to give them back their edge,” Koepke says. “It had to do with conspiracy theories and believability, and real news events.” He readily admits the ads were “over the top,” an opinion shared by MTV’s lawyers.
In the end, the work persuaded MTV to hire Modernista!, which positioned the brand as a socially transmitted disease. One outdoor ad, questioning whether one could get MTV from kissing, showed a close-up of lips locking. Happily, it met the controversy quota: Boston banned the poster on its subways.
JIM FERGUSON: CHICKEN ON A ROPE
I was before my time,” laments Jim Ferguson of an out-of-the-icebox idea he pitched to Tyson Frozen Foods back in 1981. But whether the two ensuing decades might have made a client more amenable to Ferguson’s chicken-on-a-rope concept is debatable.
Now chairman and chief creative officer at TM Advertising in Irving, Texas, Ferguson was then at Crume and Associates in Miami, which was trying to win Tyson’s business. The client was looking for new product ideas, “so I just started thinking about what I could do for a product extension,” Ferguson says. Voilà: Take a frozen chicken, hang it in the shower, and your dinner gets steamed while you’re getting cleaned. “I always enjoyed eating in a tub anyway,” rationalizes Ferguson.
The shop’s presentation included ads that showcased the novel item with straightforward product demonstrations. The handful of client executives on hand were speechless. “They just sort of looked at it, and there was a lot of silence in the room,” recalls Ferguson. “It’s one of those things—everybody pretends it didn’t happen.”
Tyson missed a great opportunity, says Ferguson wistfully, noting that “there would have been a media barrage, as well as advertising.” But he believes that there’s still hope for chicken on a rope, declaring that he’s saving the concept for a more adventurous client.
LINDA KAPLAN THALER: LIQUID FAT SELLS SHAVERS
For most men, shaving is a big annoyance, says Linda Kaplan Thaler. In gross-out spots for Panasonic’s Sonic shavers by creative directors Whitney Pillsbury, an art director, and Andy Landorf, a copywriter, workers love yucky jobs that don’t require them to shave, “because shaving sucks,” according to the voiceover.
One guy is seen pouring liquid fat into a huge vat—he’s in liposuction waste management, the super explains. He happily boasts that he gets to set his own hours and, best of all, doesn’t need to shave. In another execution, an equally perky vermin collector in the bowels of the subway says he derives satisfaction from meeting new people and going places—and, of course, not having to shave. A third character is a street cleaner who’s seen sweeping up after horses in a parade.
Although client Gene Kelsey, Panasonic general manager, loved the ads, he was looking for a campaign with a closer connection to the brand name, says Kaplan Thaler, CEO and chief creative officer of The Kaplan Thaler Group in New York. Plus, she says, focus groups were somewhat turned off by the spots. The 2002 campaign that made it to the air instead starred “Sonic Man,” who ran around interviewing people and shaving them on the spot.
ANDREW KELLER: FAWNING FOWL
A Subservient Chicken clad in garters and ready to follow almost any command may be a weird idea, says Crispin Porter + Bogusky creative director Andrew Keller, but “it made a lot of sense.” So much so, he adds, that client executives including Russ Klein, president of Burger King brands, “instantly loved it.”
Burger King wanted to sell chicken sandwiches to its core consumer, 18-34-year-old males, and was bringing back the “Have it your way” line. That tag, explains Keller, “has a lot of elements to it. One of the main elements is control.” From that sprung commercials showing a man in a very involved chicken suit, clucking around an apartment as twentysomethings openly lust after him. Then came the infamous online effort that looks much like an X-rated Web-cam site, asking users type in commands for the chicken to obey.
“Every client has different goals at any given point,” Keller says. “The Burger King brand needed to be shaken up a bit. We wanted to do something to attract attention—attention is better than no attention.”
The concept was never meant for a mainstream audience: The spots ran in late- night, supplementing a larger campaign based on characters in an office. “It would have been much crazier for a broad market,” Keller says. So far, CP+B says, the site has had 9.4 million unique visits, with each person staying an average of about six minutes.
SCOTT GOODSON: BURIED ALIVE
When StrawberryFrog co-founders Scott Goodson and Brian Elliott pitched the concept of burying someone alive to promote MSN’s revamped search engine, Elliott recalls the response as: “Ah, that’s crazy. Now show us the real idea.” Elliott had half expected client execs to figure the Amsterdam creatives “were smoking something.” StrawberryFrog, however, was thinking quite clearly.
It was 2001, and everyone in Europe was talking about the new reality-TV shows. “A hunt to find someone buried alive, visible through Web cams and other facets of the portal, would engage consumers in a way traditional advertising couldn’t,” explains Elliott. TV spots would challenge surfers to find the person through clues planted in MSN’s mail, mapping system and chat rooms.
The agency placed newspaper ads seeking a volunteer willing to be buried. This being the Netherlands, more than a thousand people responded. The client was less eager—while MSN did want to take some risks, an actual burial was deemed a bit much, and the willing victim was sequestered in an airplane hangar. After the campaign broke, “people were driving all over the country and digging up back yards,” Goodson says. A week later, players began camping in fields around the hangar. The winner got $50,000.
KERRY FEURMAN: SINGING SPONGMONKEYS
It was clear [the client] was looking for something very unusual and interesting,” says Kerry Feuerman, group creative director at The Martin Agency, which won the Quizno’s account last fall with its far-out Spongmonkeys pitch. “They wanted an agency willing to take calculated risks.” Art director Ty Harper remembered an e-mail with a link to British animator Joel Veitch’s Web site, featuring furry creatures with human-like eyes and gaping mouths. They were unusual and interesting all right.
After Harper and copywriter Raymond McKinney turned their boss into a fan, Feuerman had to sell agency management on spots that would show the Spongmonkeys singing about subs against a still photo of a Quizno’s store. When the idea was well-received, Feuerman approached agency chairman and CEO John Adams. “I’d like to give myself credit,” says Feuerman, “but he instantly understood why we wanted to use these things. He became a champion of them.”
With Veitch’s OK, the agency downloaded Spongmonkeys clips and filmed a few dozen college kids watching them. The footage helped win over the client. “The crazier an idea, the more your planning has to be very smart and very rational to sell it,” says Feuerman. “You can’t just put something on the table and say, ‘This is cool.’ ” Still, the spots were quite a coup. “I have put forth wacky ideas to clients,” says Feuerman, “but this one was not only bought but produced in the form it was presented.”
DAVID ANGELO: DOGS GET DIRTY
Humping dogs are funny—what can I tell you?” says David Angelo, by way of explaining why he created an ad for an eyeglasses chain that featured two dachshunds attacking two men’s legs.
Angelo learned a thing or two about weird ideas at Cliff Freeman and Partners in the mid-1990s before leaving to launch davidandgoliath in Los Angeles in 1998. The New York shop has famously shot gerbils out of a canon (for Outpost.com) and showed an elderly woman flashing a Midas employee. “In most cases, we worked on underdog-type brands, so we needed to do wacky work so the brand would stand out,” says Angelo.
Wackiest of all was the Vista Optical concept, an attempt to “convey value without the usual overpromise of a better life,” he explains. In the spot, an old lady is serving two men tea and cakes when suddenly her dogs run in and furiously hump the men’s legs. One of the guys, it turns out, paid big bucks for his glasses, while the other saved money at the now-defunct Vista Optical chain. “The themeline was, ‘It’s same world, you’ll just have more money,’ ” Angelo says. When the ad aired in the mid-’90s, Vista was besieged with complaints, recalls Angelo. While that didn’t bother him much—conversely, it told him people were paying attention, he says—there was one response he couldn’t brush off: “the one from the client telling us they no longer needed our services.”
GERRY GRAF: THE FUR FLIES
Two years ago, Gerry Graf was walking down Sixth Avenue in Manhattan when he passed a man in a mink. “I thought it was the dumbest thing I’d ever seen,” recalls Graf, then a creative director at BBDO. But he was also struck by the chutzpah it would take to flaunt the flashy fur.
As it happened, Graf and his partner at the time, Harold Eisenstein, were working on a Doritos Extreme campaign that imagined scenarios both “bold” and “daring.” One spot showed a male cheerleader as well as a man with a prosthetic leg playing basketball (“bold”); the cheerleader looks up his partner’s skirt, and the athlete uses his fake leg to block a shot (“daring”). “The campaign was set up where something slightly odd happens, then something stranger happens,” Graf says. “Harold and I thought, ‘A big mink coat—how would you top that? What if the [minks] all run off his body and leave him in boxer shorts?’ [The idea] kind of popped in there.”
Client reactions ranged from “Ew!” to “How would you do that?” Doritos execs said yes to everything except one gruesome detail. “We wanted to put scratches and bite marks” on the man, Graf says. “But we didn’t sell that idea.”
What’s the weirdest idea you’ve ever pitched? E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
What’s Your Weirdest Idea?
We asked 10 creatives for the craziest concept they ever pitched. Five never saw the light of day, but daring clients gave the rest the green light.