It’s Time To Get Real

In 2003, there were 28 sitcoms on the fall schedule. Last year, there were 17. What has taken their place? Reality programs. Among the four major networks, a total of 25 of them are hitting the air this month. I know this because my wife is in one of them. Yes, every Thursday night at 8 p.m. on CBS, you can tune in and watch the lovely Mrs. Crandall cook, design, party plan and basically scheme against 11 other contestants on Wickedly Perfect.

However, the real reason I’m writing this article isn’t to plug my wife’s show but to make the point that the American population has voted with their clickers, TiVos and Nielsen boxes. And the direction they’ve chosen is unscripted television.

So how have we as advertisers—as leaders of culture—figured into this new movement? Well, frankly, we haven’t much. The sad truth is that the average 30-second commercial doesn’t look a hell of a lot different now than it did 40 years ago.

How can this be? I mean, we’re advertising creatives. We know what’s cool. We listen to new bands, talk about cult movies, grow facial hair, wear lots of black. The reason our craft has essentially stagnated is because, for the most part, we’re still following the same sitcom-like formula for making commercials that was invented shortly after television itself was created. Believe it or not, we’re taking the same approach to advertising hybrid cars that our predecessors took to selling the Volkswagen Beetle in the 1960s. Worse yet, as an industry, we regularly describe the resulting spots as being “breakthrough” and “cutting-edge.”

I’m not advocating that we run from traditional scripted advertising like the Yankees starting lineup fleeing from a Balco hearing. But I do think it’s time we embraced this fundamental change in the medium and tried to help our clients benefit from it. At Ground Zero, we don’t claim to have all the answers. We’ve been adhering to the traditional precepts just like everyone else. But recently, we have made a conscious effort to broaden our view of how we make commercials.

The best example of this is a campaign we’ve just broken for the Winter X Games on ESPN. The creative team, Steve O’Brien and Tom Gillmartin, could have written some very funny scripted spots, as they have in the past. Instead, they came to me with something more interesting.

The campaign started with six rather traditional scripted spots about a support group for snowflakes who’ve been maimed by various Winter X Games athletes on their snowboards, skis and motorcycles. The difference is, these scripts were never intended to be produced. Rather, the idea, was simply to use the phony scripts to lure the athletes into participating in the campaign.

When the likes of Shaun White, Brian Deegan and Hannah Teter arrived on set, they were quickly ushered to their mobile home to eat, get fitted and rehearse their scripts, as is typically the case. Only this time, we had the Winnebago filled with hidden cameras. And while they were busy prepping for their respective “snowflake” commercials, we pulled a prank that scared the living hell out of them. We’re talking dead body falling out of the closet, being doused with cockroaches, a fake earthquake, etc.—the kind of stuff that was bound to get a shriek out of even the baddest of badasses. Then we coupled this footage of the seemingly unflappable athletes screaming like little schoolgirls with film of them performing their death-defying tricks. We wrapped it all up with the tagline, “Not fearless, but close.”

What we ended up with is a campaign whose energy and spontaneity I believe not only differentiates it from everything on ESPN’s networks but everything on television in general. As Lord Byron said, “Truth is stranger than fiction.” We learned that it’s also funnier, more emotional and generally more compelling.

Again, I’m not saying this to toot the Ground Zero horn. Others have used real people effectively in their spots for years, whether it’s Goodby’s campaign for Chevys Fresh Mex, the “Truth” work from Arnold and Crispin Porter + Bogusky, and so on. I just believe there is a lot of unspoiled creative soil in this area, and that we should all take advantage of it. It’s up to us, as the self- proclaimed “ministers of culture” and “creative visionaries,” to shake the foundation our industry is built on from time to time, rather than just repainting the rooms inside.

So I guess I’m urging the truly creative agencies among us to occasionally let go of the safety line that is the 30-second script in the hopes of creating something more original, more powerful and more effective. And, of course, I’m urging you to watch Wickedly Perfect. Unless my wife embarrasses herself. Then turn it off. Quickly.