As a kid, I was brought up on Chef Boyardee ravioli, among other canned, frozen and otherwise simulated foodstuffs. So the first time I was served ravioli at a respectable Italian restaurant, I was mystified: the fresh, handmade, flying-saucer-shaped dumplings stuffed with a savory mixture of cheeses and covered in a delicate sauce bore no resemblance to the postage-stamp-like, meat-stuffed squares of my youth.
So it was with some trepidation that I watched the first commercial  of a new campaign for Chef Boyardee, the initial work from Venables, Bell & Partners in San Francisco.
But the work really works. The tone is perfect: Smart, funny, modern, it taps into a vein of nostalgia and comfort while still being somewhat dark and sarcastic. The spots never used the words "delicious" or "nutritious." Rather, they sell familiarity, ease and comfort -- and all three are true.
The idea is that tweens and teens that think they're all grown up and sophisticated are visited by some of the embarrassing totems of their youth. These discarded items are jealous that the owners will no longer give them the time of day, but are still eating Chef Boyardee products. (The tagline, announced with booming, faux-drama, is: "The saucy, meaty taste you never outgrow.") It's all very Toy Story-ish, which makes sense, since the spots were created to run on TV and in theaters in partnership with the new release of Toy Story 3.
"Blankie" looks like something that emerged out of Sesame Street's underbelly: a pink childhood blanket, left lying tattered on a kitchen counter suddenly opens a set of mottled eyes, and starts talking to the kids eating lunch at the table.
This is one jealous piece of bed covering. After sizing up the situation, he opens his scary abyss of a mouth and says: "Abbey, you grew too old for a blankie but not too old for ravioli?"
The casting of the spot is particularly delightful. Just the moment in which Abbey's gangly friend Bridget adjusts the glasses on her nose should get some sort of award. But when she starts making fun of Abbey for having a comfort item like a blanket, the pink, tattered, 3-D talking thing makes mincemeat of her.
"We know you have a blankie, we know he's in your backpack, and we know his name is Rick," Blankie says, shutting Bridget right down. "Now, who wants to snuggle?"
A second spot, breaking Thursday, for Chef Boyardee's mini micro-beef ravioli, is equally entertaining and has a really credible setup -- the kid is alone in the kitchen, microwaving his ravioli container, when a GI Joe-like figure that he left "on a bush" comes back to complain about how he was neglected and starving, and "there ain't no ravioli out there."
A third spot features a talking night-light. But for my money, you can't do better than a sad, semi-vicious, anthropomorphized blanket. Talk about turning the tables -- this is a needy blanket! By comparison, a little lunch with the Chef is indeed warm and comforting. And if you make it yourself, it's even grown-up.