Barbara Lippert’s Critique: Quaker’s Big Headism

For starters, let’s consider the advertising device du jour—icons with giant inflexible heads. Last fall, we got the shock of finding the BK “King,” a man with a giant head if there ever was one, sharing a bed—and a meaty, cheesy breakfast sandwich—with a freaked-out male customer.

Now Quaker has entered the big-headed fray: Yes, after 128 years of being used as a symbol of almost religious brand purity, ye olde Quaker dude is back in three spots. His oversized face is plasticized, with that eerie half-smile permanently etched on. Created back in 1877 by the Quaker Mill Company as a “a virtuous identity that would instill buying confidence,” he’s a completely made-up character, like the Maytag Repairman or Mr. Whipple. But unlike them, he’s become an enduring symbol—the classic father archetype. On the one hand, Mr. Quaker is a completely commercial trademark, so there’s no reason for reverence; on the other, he does come off as rather Pope-like, especially in the new spot called “Airport,” in which he stands immobile on a moving walkway, his arms stretched out, holding a tray of wafers (er, bars) for the sinners (or, in this case, travelers). The faintly religious (or just old, ordered and established) overtones make the modern-day juxtapositions even weirder.

So there’s a lot to this new “Larry.” (Apparently, that’s what they call the Quaker Man inside the company. I think it’s disgraceful—Larry is an accountant in need of new glasses; Q-Man deserves something with more gravitas, and a more appropriate historical and Mennonite-ish ring, like Ezekiel or Jebediah.)

But I digress. The point was, merely mention the phrase “giant plasticized head” in conversation these days (as so many of us are wont to do), and everyone refers to the King.

So, Quaker Guy—breakthrough or rip-off? I’m taking the non-copycat view. Given that this particular giant inflexible head springs from a giant, inflexible company (come on, it’s the conservative world of packaged goods), a source told me—that the idea was around, in endless testing, even before the King appeared. Sure, there are similarities: Each has an immobile face, sports prissy, quasi-historical garb and is not Michael Jackson. But there are significant differences: The King is an actor under a big fake head, while the Man of Oats is head-to-toe foam. More importantly, the King thing started as a little-known, local promo from the ’70s, a curiosity that Alex Bogusky found on eBay and remade for a few attention-grabbing spots. The new Larry has a bigger job: to modernize the brand and leverage the equity of a long-existing icon.

So, why the sudden increase of masks, cartoons and puppets that has led us to this moment of Big Headism in advertising? (And it has to be more than the success of the Parade of Icons in last year’s Advertising Week.) The plasticized mask is a way of taking a familiar symbol—something so established as to become invisible—and update it by layering on some irony. Even if the result seems kind of scary or just plain stupid, there’s still a hint of nostalgia that gets our attention and resonates on a deeper level. What advertisers are really going for is to connect with the fifth-grader in all of us, to take us back to a time when we were 9 and relationships with brands were natural and innocent—or so it seemed.

Indeed, innocence with a weirdo twist is the theme throughout these new ads. We get standard settings for breakfast and granola bars—cute kids, school buses, crossing guards. And the voiceover is regular packaged-goods reassuring blah-blah (as is the line, “when you can’t go with them, send someone you trust …”).

But the music is mostly crazed la la la’s. Which is fitting, because the spots were directed by Jared Hess, the boy genius who gave us last year’s Napoleon Dynamite. For the last 20 years at least, advertising has been busy co-opting cool. But the irony here is that the film was a deadpan exploration of high school outcasts. The film’s brilliance was in the tiny details: The main character draws mystical dragons in his notebook and plays tetherball with himself. These are the kids who never had the upper-middle-class house seen in most commercials.

That said, Hess brings an interesting edge to the spots’ visuals: a youthful energy that’s so erratically speedy, it’s funny. One opens with a beautiful shot of Mr. Quaker Head over a white picket fence. We hear what sounds like horses hooves—which seems appropriate, considering the Quaker’s historic, William Penn look. But as the guy’s body is revealed, we see that the sound is not of racing to arms (Quakers are noted pacifists), but of little red wagon wheels as the kids mercilessly drag the guy around. Chaos also plays a role: There’s a great cut showing bikes properly parked in their racks at an elementary school, and then another bike comes careening into the shot and slams against the rack—no kid in sight. There’s also some fun with a crossing guard—she might be wearing sensible shoes, but she can’t help but stroke Larry’s shoulder.

Thankfully, since he’s around kids so much, the Q-Man does not have the same offputting mien as the cocktail-ringed King. Larry is more Monty Python cigar-store Indian to the King’s late-in-life Elvis.

The new Quaker Man delivers in a sweet but slightly out-there way. One word of caution on the wardrobe, however: Stick to the square buckled shoes and the britches. One sighting of him in a Hawaiian shirt and/or sunglasses, and I’m calling McGruff the Crime Dog.



Quaker

Agency

Element 79 Partners/Chicago

Chief Creative

Officer

dennis ryan

Group Creative Director

Susan Bertocchi

Creative Director

Iam Prior



Copywriter

Stefanie Lyons

Agency executive

producer

Cheryl Lindquist

Director

Jared Hess/

Moxie Pictures, Los Angeles