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Ads That Keep Going and Going

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The Energizer Bunny, best known as the attitudinal rabbit in sunglasses marching through bad commercials, has kept his shocking-pink fur under wraps lately. One of the most recognizable brand icons in advertising history, the bunny now bangs his drum from inside Energizer's e2 Titanium battery to illustrate its strength and longevity.

In the most recent of the many scenarios dreamed up in the course of 14 years by TBWA\Chiat\Day in Playa del Rey, Calif., the character that "keeps going" asks, "Do you have the bunny inside?" The e2 work shows an outline of the revved-up bunny inside an image of the high-performance battery—which, in one ad, is propelled by the rabbit as it pops through the battery's skin.

"It's so huge and so ingrained in popular culture. How do you walk away from an icon that has so much meaning?" asks Tom Carroll, president of the Americas at TBWA, which launched its first bunny ad-parody campaign in 1989. The rabbit, which has appeared in more than a hundred commercials, and its catchphrase have become synonymous with longevity in the American idiom—famously cited, for example, to describe Bill Clinton's sex drive or the Oakland Raiders' Jerry Rice. "The real challenge is, How do you leverage years and years of positive connection with consumers but also try to evolve the message of the brand?" says Carroll.

That isn't easily answered in the less-spots, more-media mind-set of the day. The time needed to nurture and support a campaign over the long term is an increasingly rare luxury. Clients want quick results. And management shifts on either side of the equation often lead to shifts in strategy and execution, if not agency relationships as well. Change might stem from a new idea at the agency or a new executive at the client. A lack of confidence—in the economy, in the traditional advertising solution—only facilitates the fickle behavior.

"Madison Avenue is like the fast-food business," notes Michael Patti, senior executive creative director at BBDO New York. "Every client has a new campaign every two years."

Slogans that are more than a year or two old are uncommon, and lines older than a decade—such as Nike's "Just do it," introduced in 1988 by Wieden + Kennedy, Portland, Ore., and Visa's "It's everywhere you want to be" from BBDO New York, which dates from 1985—are rarer still. Campaigns sporting the same creative strategy and style after more than a decade, such as Absolut's 22-year-old bottle campaign, are an anomaly.

"It's a miracle if you hit upon a campaign that lasts more than three years. Everyone wants to put their own stamp on things," says Fallon art director Bob Barrie, who has worked on Time's "Red border" campaign since its inception in 1994. "There is so much change for the sake of change.

"It's a testament to the clients that have been in management at Time," he says of the work's longevity. "They've allowed a good thing to continue."

To prevent long-running icons and taglines from becoming invisible, stale or meaningless, agencies carefully protect the way they are used. "You don't want to throw away the baby with the bath water—and you want to freshen the message," says TBWA's Carroll. In the case of the bunny's return as a sleek silver shadow, a product demo becomes a product attribute.

In fact, a product's prominent placement in the work can add years to a campaign's life span, even if certain formulas—a red border for Time, a milk mustache—are repeated over and over again. "By its very nature, it stays current with pictures of current events. It is exactly what the client is about," says Mary Warlick, executive director of The One Club, New York, of the Time campaign. "It is a product shot presented in a very sophisticated way."

Barrie figures it's easier for him to keep Time's ads fresh than it is for the creatives on Absolut at TBWA\Chiat\Day, New York, or on Altoids at Leo Burnett, Chicago, whose "Curiously Strong" campaign is in its eighth year. "It's a bit of an unusual situation. Today's news is the product," he says. "But what these campaigns have in common is, in addition to a good creative strategy, it's impossible not to realize what product it is for. The whole structure and layout is geared toward the product."

A steady diet of celebrity product demos allows Bozell's milk-mustache campaign, which launched in 1995 with Naomi Campbell wearing the white badge of honor across her upper lip, to stay as fresh as the product is supposed to be. "We come up with a new ad every month and tap into the celebrities that are the hottest right now," says Sal Taibi, senior partner and director of account services at Bozell, New York. "We track awareness of the ads. The ads still have stopping power."

The campaign has become more focused on specific age groups and on milk's health benefits. In 1999 it added the additional currency of a campaign that first proved successful in a regional market, "Got milk?" That campaign, created by Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, San Francisco, for the California Milk Processor Board, turns 10 this year.

The "Got milk?" tagline, created by Goodby co-founder and creative director Jeff Goodby, launched with a series of award- winning spots based on a milk-deprivation strategy. A classic spot from that first wave, "Aaron Burr," returned to TV last year. An American-history buff has no milk but a peanut-butter-filled mouth when the trivia question, "Who shot Alexander Hamilton?" comes on the radio.

The California dairy association, like Bozell's Dairy Management and Milk Processors Education Program clients, has also added a health-oriented message to its advertising. A spot from Goodby that breaks this week emphasizes that "Strength comes from within" with a montage of X-ray images and haunting music from The English Patient. At the same time, a second execution, featuring a psychic boy who warns partygoers not to eat the birthday cake because there is no milk, goes back to the deprivation theme. Both, of course, carry the "Got milk?" line.

"The brilliance of the agency asking the question was what allowed people to listen," says Jeff Manning, executive director of the California Milk Processor Board in Berkeley, Calif. "If you were to change one letter, the 'o' to an 'e,' how different does that feel? The [former] is approachable. 'Got Milk?' 'I don't know, maybe I should go check.' That's part of the reason why it's never changed."

Conversely, knowing when you have too much of a good thing is just as important as using everything you've got. That's been the case with Nike. Hal Curtis, Nike creative director at Wieden + Kennedy, says that when it broke in 1988, the "Just do it" mantra offered a summary of what the viewer had just seen. "It means exercising and moving your body. It isn't fun, it's hard. It takes dedication, but the benefits are worth it," explains Curtis.

The first spot featured Priscilla Welch, a 42-year old woman who had just won the New York marathon. In the spot, Welch runs up a hill, explaining that she once had trouble walking up hills. She says, "I smoked. I drank. I was fat, and I hadn't done a lick of exercise in my life. So I started jogging. Who says you can't run away from your problems?" Then came the now-famous words, written by Dan Wieden himself, "Just do it."

That message was amplified later that year with the memorable cross-training campaign starring Bo Jackson, but by the mid-'90s, the line was ubiquitous in Nike's advertising and its power had become diluted. The agency experimented with other themelines, like 1998's "I can," which was short-lived. "It was a poor runner-up," says Curtis. "The reason ['Just do it'] is so fantastic is that it's the final word. When all the rational has been rationalized, there's nothing else to be said. That's why it has been so hard to top, and that's why it's been one of the greatest taglines in history."

The agency protects the potency of the line by using it only when an ad is deemed " 'Just do it' worthy," says Rebecca Van Dyck, Nike account director at Wieden. "Move," a recent execution that included the tagline, proved so worthy that it won last year's Emmy for best commercial. In it, images of athletes in motion fluidly glide from one to the next, choreographed to the timing of a soft piano score. "Keeping it fresh has less to do sometimes with the tagline than what goes in front of it," notes Curtis.

A broad range of creative executions has sustained Visa's 18-year-old "It's everywhere you want to be" tag, says Jimmy Siegel, senior executive creative director at BBDO New York. Spots run the gamut from a current lighthearted execution starring Martin and Charlie Sheen to last year's 9/11 tribute to New York. "It's everywhere you want to be physically, mentally and emotionally," he says.

BBDO's Patti credits the ease with which executions could be written to fit General Electric's "We bring good things to life" for the staying power of the company's message, introduced in 1979. "You knew where you were heading. You knew the emotion you were going for," says Patti. "It was quite an advantage to have it."

Stephen A. Greyser, professor of marketing and communications at Harvard University, has been following GE's advertising for years. "We bring good things to life" was one of the most effective corporate campaigns, he says. "It was an umbrella that was large enough to cover a range of services and products."

But last month, the agency and client abandoned their positioning of 24 years for a new message, "Imagination at work." The new strategy debuted after CEO Jeffrey Immelt joined GE a year and a half ago and asked the agency to rethink the brand's advertising. Eighteen months of research went into testing GE's positioning. The goal was to broaden its early image as an appliance company—which the line still reflected—into an innovator of aviation and medical technologies, as well as financial services. "We felt we should signal change in a bolder way," says Beth Comstock, head of corporate communications for GE.

The new effort includes a spot celebrating the spirit of the Wright brothers and another highlighting the ways GE helps the medical community improve patient care. "We had to change the look and feel, and make a new statement for the company," explains Patti, who works on the account with Don Schneider. "[We] thought that if we simplified these businesses into beautiful metaphors and show what GE is doing for people today, we were changing the tonality with metaphorical stories but not losing the GE humanity."

The California Milk Processor Board's Manning says that ultimately the success of a campaign depends not only on a sound strategy but also commitment. Although marketers should continually test and probe the limits of a campaign idea, he argues that taglines are too often treated as "disposable."

"It's your brand positioning. It's not just a couple of words at the end of a commercial," Manning says. "Philosophically, you have to believe in it and believe that you are going to keep it, the same way you would treat a marriage. If you were to get married and say, 'Let's see how it goes, and we'll re-evaluate in five years,' where's the commitment?"