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Creative: The Installment Plan

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Sitcom-style serial advertising finds an audience
An anxious high-school girl searches the basketball team's lineup to make sure her name is there. Later in the season, another girl on the team joyously reads a letter offering her a full ride to Stanford. After a bitter loss, all the team's players sweat through a grueling practice. Scenes from a new female jock drama on TV? No. They're part of "A Championship Season," the nine-spot campaign for Nike's women's basketball by Goodby, Silverstein & Partners. Each ad highlights a single player's worries or dreams, then ends with a newspaper headline describing her performance in the game.
In recent months, TV viewers have been treated to a raft of comedy and dramatic serials that no one would ever find listed in TV Guide. There's Wieden & Kennedy's Gen-X family satire "The Inquisition"; Foote, Cone & Belding's sports-themed "Kruk's House of Eggs"; and the irreverent office comedy "Squawk Box" by Messner Vetere Berger McNamee Schmetterer/Euro RSCG. Along with the Nike work directed by Antony Hoffman, Goodby, Silverstein is responsible for the film-noir series "Town without milk" and "Louie the lizard," the latest stand-up comic to get his own program.
These TV tales have been hawking Diet Coke, MCI phone services, milk, Nike shoes and Budweiser beer. It's a creative idea that seems awesomely simple, though it isn't new. To keep people interested in the ad messages, the agency invents a community of familiar people with an intriguing central character and tells the advertiser's branding story through their continuing adventures. It works for Seinfeld, why not for soap?
Like any successful TV program, the challenge for the creators is "to load the front idea with a place and characters strong enough to keep [the story] going," says FCB group creative director Brian Bacino. "With each episode, the viewer should learn more about the characters."
Regional agencies have used serial print and radio campaigns for years as an inexpensive and clever way to hammer home their messages to small pools of consumers. Then three years ago, McCann-Erickson's Taster's Choice lovers and Messner's Gramercy Press office staffers put the genre on the radar screen for mass-market advertisers. While those early national sitcomlike campaigns aimed to mimic the pacing and tone of real TV shows, the latest round of work attempts to outdo it with tighter editing, faster action and more exaggerated humor.
Like a TV show, some of the new campaigns need to be seen in order, but most do not. What matters, say creative directors, is that each viewer sees multiple installments to understand the overall message. New York-based Messner's latest work for MCI revolves around a character that the viewer only hears. He is a sharp-tongued boss, played by Kelsey Grammer, whose voice barks instructions from the office's PA system. In each of the dozen or so spots, directed by Jim Gartner, the voice comments on certain employees and alerts the staff to high-tech changes MCI is bringing to their company.
A serial campaign is "useful when an advertiser has a lot to say. You can unfold the marketing message as you unfold the story," says Tom Messner, the agency partner who oversees the MCI work. "Otherwise, you end up with broad generalities that give little real help." In the new MCI campaign, the technique lets the agency show "the humor and drama of a behind-the-times company transforming into a contemporary organization" step-by-step, he says. In fact, telecommunications seems to be a category that lends itself to serial campaigns. "We offer complex multidimensional services," says Gretchen Gehrett, MCI's executive director of advertising. "The richness of the story [in a serial campaign] allows us to show the various facets of our service."
Creatives at Merkley Newman Harty in Atlanta and New York agree. A campaign for BellSouth Telecommunications is a tapestry of lighthearted vignettes from a small town called Chatsford as told by a fictional "average guy" BellSouth employee. The most memorable spot portrays the telecom worker talking to a classroom of second-graders about the range of his responsibilities, when all the kids care about is getting a ride in his BellSouth truck.
While some sitcom efforts are designed as a collection of interwoven episodes, others are launched from a single ad concept that has a character too popular to abandon. Probably the most well-known recent example is San Francisco-based Goodby's Louie the lizard ads for Budweiser. When the animated lizards with their wry anti-establishment personalities were introduced last year, audiences responded positively. That prompted Anheuser-Busch to approve a series of new Super Bowl spots, which revealed Louie's bizarre plot to kill the Budweiser frogs created by DDB Needham in Chicago. The Super Bowl series, directed by Goodby associate creative director Tom Routson, follows the action as Louie first hires a ferret to do the hit, watches the assassination attempt and, when it goes awry, hurls ridicule at the furry failure. The battle of the reptiles--and rival roster shops--will continue as Goodby readies more ads for the spring. "As long as people are interested in the lizards, we'll keep the story going," says Jeff Goodby, agency principal.
Goodby's newest Got Milk? ads are a moody, black-and-white series about a sad rural town without milk. Playing off a Prohibition theme, the campaign, directed by Jeff Goodby, goes for laughs after outlining the plot in an initial general anthem spot. With this approach, "it was crucial to first set up the frame of reference, the viewers' knowledge base," says Jeff Manning, executive director of the California Milk Processors Board, who commissioned the campaign. The ads have no lead character, instead, the series is recognized by "the music, the way it's shot, the lack of color. We hope people stay with each ad because they know something weird is going to happen," says Manning. Among the stories: wild teenagers who sneak away to a nearby town to binge on milk and chocolate syrup.
Under the aegis of former executive creative director and Gramercy Press veteran Paul Wolfe, FCB's San Francisco office created a pair of episodic campaigns for two vastly different clients, Levi's and Fox Sports Net. (Wolfe has since returned to Messner after a stint at FCB in New York.) To promote baseball games on Fox Sports Net, FCB came up with a campaign last spring based around an offbeat diner, the "House of Eggs," run by real-life retired baseball player John Kruk. The 16 spots directed by Rich Wafter were shot in three days on a single set. In one, the customers at the counter do the wave as they watch a game on TV; in another, Kruk yells at the health inspector like a coach who's mad at an umpire. "The serial idea was a good way to get the most out of a limited budget and time frame," says FCB's Bacino.
FCB's $90 million serial campaign for Levi's attempted to take the serial genre to a new level. In an effort to be ultra-hip and reflect the independent spirit of the brand, six surreal spots directed by Tarsem were loosely linked with no single setting or central character. As daring as the campaign was in concept, it couldn't save the agency's rocky relationship with the client. Last January, the account was awarded to TBWA Chiat/Day.
Another Gen-X serial campaign that depends on a certain level of subtlety is Wieden's new trio of Diet Coke ads showing a young man sipping a Diet Coke as he responds to his nagging parents. Directed by feature filmmaker Kevin Smith (Clerks, Chasing Amy), the deadpan ads slowly reveal that the son turned down a prospective job because he didn't want to relocate. He then loses his girlfriend because she takes the job instead and moves away. In a final jab of dark humor, the third spot shows the parents telling their son that he ought to have kids of his own, to similarly torture, viewers presume.
Will any of these sitcom ad campaigns cross the line to become actual TV programs? Don't hold your breath. At one point, Fox Sports Net suggested the agency consider turning Kruk's House of Eggs into a half-hour show, but Bacino says FCB has not pursued the idea. Goodby sources indicate similar interest in turning some of their serial ads into TV shows, but report that no plans are in the works.
Until then, these serials may be entertaining, but they are still ads. An agency can build a popular story, says Tom Messner, but if the client's marketing needs suddenly shift, like any other ad campaign, "your show is canceled."