For marketers, a good actor can be the difference between lackluster and through-the-roof numbers. Sharply drawn characters help graft meaning onto products by giving them a sense of back story and continuity, a familiarity that goes a long way toward cementing a connection. It’s similar to the way sitcom characters, in behaving in expected ways, create long-lasting relationships with viewers who revel in the comfort of repetition.
Famous brand personalities, of course, stretch way back. Some of our old favorites are Cracker Jack’s Jack Gilford, Palmolive’s Jan Milner and Maytag’s Gordon Jump. Here are five contemporary actors whose personas give big boosts to the brands they embody.
Character: The Most Interesting Man in the World
Client: Dos Equis (Heineken)
Agency: Euro RSCG
Out of the hundreds of actors who auditioned in cities countrywide to make a case for why they should play The Most Interesting Man in the World, only one took off a shoe and sock to audition barefoot. Why? He wanted to leave a lasting impression.
That actor was 73-year-old Jonathan Goldsmith, who, in casting, had mentioned he lived on a boat in Beverly Hills (an impossible feat).
In a Hollywood career spanning decades, Goldsmith typically played the heavy in dozens of TV shows and movies. He was hung, shot, electrocuted and otherwise roughed up and/or brought to justice by the likes of John Wayne, Marshall Matt Dillon and MacGyver. While Goldsmith took a break from acting during the early ’90s to try his hand at the waterless car wash industry, he started auditioning for roles again around a decade or so later.
Goldsmith’s age both helped and hindered his chances with Dos Equis. “We knew this needed to be a man who could give you advice on life without you wanting to punch him in the face,” says Brandon Henderson, who had worked on the campaign while at Euro (and is now at Wieden + Kennedy). “The younger the person we looked at, the more irritating it became when he tried to impart his wisdom.”
But as Henderson puts it, Goldsmith was also “about a half-century” outside of Dos Equis’ age demographic.
Ultimately, though, Goldsmith’s ability during early casting sessions to improvise “long stories about shipwrecks and homing pigeons and sneaking into dinners with foreign ambassadors," per Henderson, got him the job. Since then, Goldsmith has helped Dos Equis achieve double-digit sales growth every year since the campaign launched in 2006.
Character: The T-Mobile Girl
Agency: Publicis Seattle
Until Carly Foulkes came along, commercials that featured people hawking and/or pretending to be high-tech devices was pretty much a guy domain. (Think Justin Long and John Hodgman for Apple.) But as it turns out, the T-Mobile myTouch girl isn’t all that girly, at least in real life. Foulkes’ favorite pastimes include snowboarding, skateboarding, collecting comic books and playing her PlayStation 3. Put her in a magenta party dress, however, and she exudes a dewy friendliness that takes the fear of technology out of technology.
The 23-year-old Canadian, who has been modeling since she was a teenager, has done print work for Ralph Lauren and Abercrombie & Fitch. The T-Mobile gig is her biggest to date. At her audition, Foulkes found herself operating at a distinct disadvantage due to her country of origin. Canadians pronounce “mobile” so that it rhymes with smile.
“I botched all my lines and kept saying the name of the phone wrong,” she later told Paper magazine. “It was definitely an ‘I need a glass of wine after this’ experience.”
Apparently, botching a few lines didn’t keep Publicis from believing they’d found the perfect spokesperson. The campaign it was planning not only appropriated Apple’s “I’m a Mac” ads, but it also added insult to larceny by knocking the iPhone’s sluggish performance. In the wrong hands, a copycat attack ad could have backfired horribly, but Foulkes, looking sun dappled and spring fresh, provides the light touch needed.
Character: Kevin Butler, vp, Sony
Jerry Lambert, 54, is so convincing as Kevin Butler, Sony’s fictional middle-management corporate gaming evangelist, that unwitting journalists have tried to set up interviews with him. Even Lambert fans have trouble separating the actor from the role. When they post clips from the dozens of TV shows and movies he has appeared in over the last 20 years or so on YouTube, they give the clips titles like “Kevin Butler in Bad Teacher” and “Kevin Butler on That ’70s Show.”
Like a simulated wood-grain bookcase, Lambert—who previously starred as one of the “Business Guys” in Fallon’s Holiday Inn campaign from 2006—just looks like he belongs in an office. That square jaw. The slight works-hard-but-hey-I-party-sometimes weariness that informs his gaze. Throw a potted fern at, say, any large trade show, and you’ll hit enough guys who look exactly like Lambert to fill, well, a trade show.
But few if any will likely have performed Shakespeare on stage with Alfred Molina or graduated from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. (Fellow alums include Lauren Bacall, Spencer Tracy and Paul Rudd.)
A character actor’s character actor, Lambert can toss off verbal chest-bumps like “Boom to the power of boom” with the sort of swagger and nuance that could translate into a gig as an ESPN anchor—or a branch manager at a micro-cap regional paper and office supply distributor. Indeed, Lambert should have had the chance to fill Steve Carell’s cordovan wing tips on The Office, but maybe sleepy Dunder Mifflin just wasn’t ready for the executive firepower he would have brought to the job.
Client: Progressive Insurance
Agency: Arnold Worldwide
In 2007, Stephanie Courtney almost quit auditioning for commercials—she was landing about one a year—because of all the money she spent on gas driving to casting agents. But those pilgrimages yielded an unexpected benefit. Courtney auditioned for Progressive and summoned the sort of deep appreciation for insurance one gets dodging cars in Los Angeles’ notoriously horrific traffic.
Pre-Flo, buying car insurance felt like paying a tax. The genius of the Progressive campaign was to position paying for car insurance as shopping. And every shop needs a helpful sales clerk. As Flo, Courtney works without a catchphrase or, say, the editing the Old Spice Guy benefits from. All she’s got is her mini-beehive and a sincere desire to get you an insurance policy that totally flatters your driving habits.
Courtney, 41, came to L.A. to pursue a career in stand-up comedy. She’s a senior member of the improv group The Groundlings and has appeared in such TV shows as United States of Tara and Men of a Certain Age. She also has a recurring role on Mad Men.
Her kooky charm as Flo helps her project an instant intimacy and epic likability. In fact, she’s so likable the official Flo the Progressive Girl page on Facebook has approximately 3.3 million likes, which is enough to put her ahead of such cultural fixtures as Maya Angelou, Sarah Palin and the Boston Red Sox.
She also has about 15 times more than her main competitor in the car insurance business. Take that, Geico gecko.
Character: The Christmas Champ
Agency: Wieden + Kennedy
In her stand-up act and online video series, The Maria Bamford Show, comedian Maria Bamford mines laughs and pathos from her struggles with life-crippling social anxiety, romantic despair, all-purpose hopelessness, and her obsessive-compulsive thoughts about chopping people into bits and having sex with the bits and then eating the bits.
In other words, if you were a huge discount retailer looking for a spokesperson, she probably wouldn’t be on your short list. Unless your agency was Wieden + Kennedy.
“I didn’t have to audition,” the 41-year-old, who attracted Wieden’s attention via her performance in the 2004 documentary, Comedians of Comedy, tells Adweek. The shop had created a character (The Christmas Champ)—a high-strung holiday fanatic in Santa-inspired couture—and thought Bamford could effectively convey the manic focus required.
While the campaign ran from 2009 to 2011, Wieden’s break-up with Target in January has put the character’s future in jeopardy. But Bamford continues to collaborate with Wieden copywriter Jason Kreher in their spare time. Recently, the two have been experimenting with parodies of “haul videos,” that YouTube phenomenon wherein teen girls offer in-depth analysis and color commentary on all the crap they bought at the mall.
In their first collaboration, Bamford shows off her purchases from Portland’s Powell’s bookstore. Neither Bamford nor Kreher are paid, but a book Bamford championed was by Isabel Allende, and after Allende saw the video, she sent Bamford signed copies of her novels. It’s not quite as much as the six-figure contracts Bamford earned for portraying The Christmas Champ, but it’s a start.
Foukles Photo: Courtesy of Publicis Seattle