Borrowed Time

Two boys sit at a kitchen table, a package of Oreos in front of them. The older one dips his cookie in a glass of milk. The younger boy tries to do the same, but his spill-proof cup makes dunking impossible, so he strategically places his cookie on the table, turns his cup over and spills a few drops over the Oreo. “Ha, ha,” he says to his brother, who wouldn’t share his glass. The tag: “Got milk?”

This endearing spot, which broke in California this fall, was not created to sell milk. In fact, it first aired in 1997 as an ad for Nabisco’s Oreo cookies. The California Milk Processor Board and its agency, Good by, Silverstein & Partners in San Francisco, changed only the tagline, leaving the rest of Foote, Cone & Belding’s work intact. “It sounds crazy,” says agency co-founder Jeff Goodby, “but it serves both advertisers.”

Advertisers are finding new life in old material: not only a commercial made for a different brand but icons that once represented other products. Two retired spokescharacters created by TBWA\Chiat\Day are still seeing screen time: The Martin Agency recast Taco Bell’s Chihuahua as an unemployed pup hoping to land a spokesgig for Geico insurance. And Pets.com’s witty Sock Puppet makes a comeback of sorts in a regional nine-spot campaign for California auto-financing firm 1-800-Bar None.

The ad-world celebrity of the Chi huahua and the puppet extends their lifetimes well beyond the campaigns they were created for. “It is rare to find an icon that resonates so quickly with the consumers,” says Brian Hakan, president and ceo of licensing firm Hakan & Associates, which represents both dogs. “Very few connect the way these two have.”

But with these icons’ fame tied to one brand, doesn’t that taint the new pitch? Not necessarily, says Hakan. “Tom Hanks won an Oscar for Forrest Gump, but people don’t always look at him as Forrest Gump,” he argues. “[The Chihuahua] became a phenomenon by virtue of her performance.”

Bar None’s spots initially referred to the puppet’s past, trying to account for his transition from the dot-com. CEO Jim Krouse says the work was over-explaining, and the spots have been simplified.

Hakan & Associates bought the rights to the Sock Puppet during Pets.com’s liquidation sale last year. Along with marketers like Bar None, Hakan says interested parties include a Hollywood producer thinking of putting the puppet in a TV show.

“The Sock Puppet was perfect for us,” says Krouse. The company’s tag line, after all, is “Everyone deserves a second chance.” Krouse reports that since the campaign launched, call volume has increase by 30 percent.

The Martin Agency recruited Gidget the Chihuahua from Studio Animal Services in Castaic, Calif., which owns and trains the dog. The same actor used by Taco Bell, Carlos Alaz raqui, provides Gidget’s voice. In the spot, Geico’s gecko finally decides to join the company. Trying out for spokes character, he runs into the now-unemployed pup. “The creative team thought of open auditions, and who might be there besides the gecko but another talking animal?” says Steve Bassett, group cd at The Martin Agency in Richmond, Va.

The generic nature of his product, says Jeff Manning, executive director of the Milk Processor Board, makes it easier to borrow from another brand. In 1996, the Trix rabbit appeared in a “Got milk?” spot. And Oreos are so linked to milk that one execution in the “Got milk?” campaign centered on the origin of the name Oreo.

The FCB spot, which still runs occasionally as an Oreo commercial, features milk so predominantly that most consumers who saw the spot in testing with no tagline assumed it was for milk. “It has to be the classic win-win situation,” says Manning, who got permission from Nabisco to use the spot without a fee. “We get a fantastic commercial free, production-wise, and Nabisco wins a million or so in media at no cost to them.”

Manning believes co-opt advertising and collaborative marketing will become more common. “Con su mers make purchasing decisions that might involve two or three brands all at the same time,” he says.

Rich Russo, chief creative officer at FCB, agrees, citing the tie-ins and product placements of entertainment marketing as a model. “Co-opting in a lot of different ways is the way to go in the future,” he notes. “More and more, icon brands are trying to surround people’s lives. I think you are going to see it fast and furious.”