Brands Go for the Naked Truth

Talk about a Big Idea: “Feel better,” the new Tylenol campaign from Deutsch, New York, is a smart, artful category basher that manages to talk about health in a genuinely modern, engaging way. And that’s no easy task.

Last time we left the old miracle drug, it was being promoted by Deutsch as part of the “Tylenol promise” in interesting TV work that showed Johnson & Johnson employees talking about how the pain reliever is made. “We put love into it,” said one woman on the production line. Emotion-wise, she was an improvement over the headmistress — like senior corporate officer who preceded her and sternly lectured about the need to follow the directions on the bottle.

But while I found Ms. Lovey-Dovey to be memorable and warm, her sentiment about her job seemed so over the top that I wondered what she was covering up. Was “love” actually a code word for “lead” or maybe “shrapnel?”

OK, so maybe I’m paranoid. But not without reason, given that the latest scary health news says our tap water is full of pharmaceuticals, notably Xanax. I have to say, I’ve yet to receive the Xanax boost.

Back in 1982, there was legitimate reason to fear the brand: Seven people in Chicago died after ingesting Extra Strength Tylenol that had been laced with potassium cyanide poison. Indeed, that tragedy is still part of Tylenol lore, as is the masterly way J&J handled it, expertly bringing the brand back from almost certain extinction. It ended up as a textbook case of excellent crisis management.

Some 20 years later, Tylenol — now available in tamper-proof packaging and gel caps, two post-cyanide technological improvements — began moving off the radar as aging boomers and Xers were drawn to the anti-inflammatory powers of Advil and Aleve. Besides, all three were positioned in the same way: for pain.

While “Tylenol promise” was an improvement over less-memorable work, “Feel better” is pitch perfect in that it gives the consumer credit. It uses no scare tactics, and has no hectoring from a health teacher about what you should and shouldn’t be eating, smoking or drinking. Instead, it positions the brand as the thinking-person’s choice.

“Nobody knows your body better than you do,” a soothing female voiceover announces in “Anthem,” the introductory spot for the campaign. There’s modern, slightly New Age-y background music, but it underscores the directness of what she’s saying in a not-annoying way. “You know what parts are strong. What parts are weak. You know what parts feel young. And what parts ache.” As she speaks, each line is represented by an isolated body part (hand, foot, shoulder, back) shot beautifully in black and white by director Jeffrey Plansker.

Now, this skin thing is delicate territory. When photographer Bruce Weber shot nekkid flesh for various Calvin Klein jeans and fragrance campaigns, the takeaway was charged and highly eroticized because the models were very young and frequently bare-chested. These images, while no less impactful, are hardly sensual. They’re more like living medical illustrations of the human body: muscle, sinew, bone, veins, blood, pressure points. The joints and muscles move, the blood throbs in the veins.

And it’s to Plansker’s credit that although some of the flesh is old and wrinkled (it’s also black, white and freckled), it looks beautiful.

“Tylenol believes the right pain reliever for you is one that works with your body to target pain,” the announcer continues, as we see the protruding spinal column of a middle-age woman reaching for the small of her back. Her lower back pain, familiar to so many of us, is communicated loud and clear without her saying a word.

Interestingly, the work is not that visually different from last year’s controversial “Pro-Age” spot for Dove, which uses various 50-plus women as models. The spot is still up on the Web site, posted as “The ad we couldn’t show on TV.” It documents human bodies in a similar manner, showing anonymous, isolated areas, a few head-to-toe nude poses (in a modest, covered-up Calendar Girls kind of way) and, finally, the models’ faces.

Some people responded by saying America was “not ready for this.” For what? Women who are not perfect, but still look great? Conceptually, the posing does take on a slightly sexualized tone, which was both the great part and the problem; however randy the rest of the culture has become, on a gut level we apparently find older flesh an assault on the senses.

The Tylenol work has a similarly elevated aesthetic, but it’s unisex and serves a medical purpose. (In its artful way, the spot also manages to get in some relevant digs. For example, it notes that Tylenol works “without irritating your stomach like aspirin or even ibuprofen can” and “without interfering with certain high-blood-pressure medicines, like Aleve sometimes can.” As so many people are on blood-pressure meds, the latter is an important point.)

The spot ends with the tagline, “Feel better, Tylenol,” which comes off as conversational, casual and authentic. All in all, “Anthem” is pretty perfect.

Later work will get more specific as each spot focuses on a single, unassailably matter-of-fact medical factoid like, “Dehydration is the leading cause of headaches.”

The print work starts out with specifics. I particularly like the rubber ducky ad — a bright yellow duck in bright white space — that discusses treating a baby’s fever with Infants’ Tylenol. Again, the tone is soothing and supportive, not hysterical.

While all the print is clever and highly graphic, the approach, especially given all the white space, seems familiar, not as breakthrough as the TV spots.

Another print ad in the campaign, for Tylenol Extra Strength Rapid Release Gels, is a strange, cropped photo of a woman’s torso. She’s wearing a short-sleeve blouse and her arms are outstretched, with one hand offering a glass of water, the other the Tylenol. It raises a chicken-or-egg-type question about which is better for headaches, the water or the pain tabs and then, making clear the brand is on the consumer’s side, the copy reads, “In all fairness, they both are.” It goes on to note that “water keeps you hydrated, removes toxins … which can help avoid headaches. Extra Strength Tylenol … works with your body to silence the headache pain you can’t avoid.”

Another in the series features a gorgeous, 19th-century-looking cropped shot of the nape of a woman’s neck and is about headache relief. Unfortunately, it includes a jokey line about asking “your spouse for a massage.” On behalf of all the spouseless, we are not amused.

There’s also a re-skinned Web site (tylenol.com) that offers useful tools. One can compare brand ingredients. For instance, a user could type in Bayer aspirin and compare it to Aleve and Advil, leaving Tylenol out altogether.

All in all, it’s vital, transparent work, which makes it seem authentic. Without resorting to corny lab coats or reports of science-y findings, it even suggests an optimistic future for our collective health.

Perhaps there’s something in the water: Skin, it seems, is the next advertising frontier. This is illustrated brilliantly in BBH’s work for Vaseline, a century-old product that here comes off as an environmentally conscious, game-changing dynamo. The campaign, “Keep skin amazing,” goes beyond beauty to something universal and even existential.

(Vaseline’s Web site, by the way, has an unintentional There Will Be Blood tie-in, although it never mentions a milkshake. According to vaseline.com, “The Vaseline journey started in 1859, when a 22-year-old chemist from Brooklyn, New York named Robert A. Chesebrough went to Pennsylvania to investigate an oil well.” There he discovered a gooey substance known as red wax, the residue of which oil workers would smear their skin with “as it appeared to aid the healing of cuts and burns.” He started experimenting with it and the rest is not gravy, but a very successful petroleum jelly business, which over the years became not so much the stuff of beauty as old-fashioned practicality.)

The TV spot, “Sea of Skin,” was created by BBH New York, but launched first in the U.K. (It broke here last fall.) “Your skin is amazing,” the announcer says. “All 800 million cells of it. A waterproof barrier, a defense against disease, constantly growing and replacing itself. … Do you see skin the way we do?”

The visuals are astounding. The spot shows us that we are interdependent — all part of the same living, breathing organism that is the world. It’s a big, unexpectedly beneficent message that brings both science and emotion to the brand.

Borrowing a page from the work of photographer Spencer Tunick, who photographs crowds of naked people so that the bodies become abstract and form a new whole, the spot, directed by Ivan Zacharias, was produced on a multi-million dollar budget. It used almost 400 extras in three countries — Iceland, Spain, and England. Close-ups and long shots of naked people are colorized and distorted to suggest rivers, forests and other parts of nature. Bodies cluster and move and separate, a shot that looks like blood cells being examined under a microscope turns into living people, all nude and raising their arms in cell-like boats.

The bodies come together in a mystical and spiritual way, and the film has a fine art quality and purity of vision rarely found in advertising. By showing the shots out of context, our perceptions are challenged, and the original, magical vitality completely elevates the brand.

A current Vaseline skin lotion print ad from photographer Giles Revell shows hundreds of human hands in multiple hues forming a beautifully intricate, semi-abstract woven pattern. The effect isn’t so much a lesson in diversity as it is a fascinating close-up of our physiology.

Photographer Edward Weston, the dean of black-and-white, environmental photography, who famously shot the suggestive curves and lines of shells and peppers, said, “To photograph a rock, have it look like a rock, but be more than a rock.”

What we have in these two campaigns is much more than a rock. We get a larger picture of humanity that indeed makes skin amazing.