Livelier Than Fiction

A decade after the Chevys campaign, the truth is still king

It’s been more than 10 years since I could be found roaming the streets of San Francisco with Steve Simpson and our little production crew from Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, asking people, “Can you tell me the date today?” Last month, the campaign for Chevys Fresh Mex restaurants that those treks produced, better known as “Fresh TV,” made it into the Clio Hall of Fame.

It’s quite an honor, considering the campaign ran for less than a year, and only in the Bay Area. And that it wasn’t directed by Ridley Scott, Tony Kaye or Joe Pytka. And that it wasn’t even shot on film because we couldn’t afford film, let alone a director, with our budget of $8,000 per spot.

Basically, Chevys always served food that was made fresh that day and thrown out that night. Other chains didn’t, preferring to do things like serve salsa and guacamole out of cans. Chevys’ slogan was, “Fresh Mex.” Our idea was to create commercials that were as fresh as the food: “Fresh TV.”

That meant gathering in the office at 4:30 a.m. and developing a plan of attack. We hit the streets before dawn, usually by 5:30. We videotaped ourselves asking as many unsuspecting people as we could what the date was that day. At about 7:30 we rushed to the editor to cut a spot by 9:30. At that point, Rich Silverstein would show up and demand a recut to “make it funnier.” At 10 a.m., Mike Hislop and Laura Brezner from the client would give the thumbs-up to dub. Bike messengers would then deliver the tapes to TV stations by 11 so the spots could be logged in to air that night.

This is the kind of work that will kill most humans. We didn’t have the benefit of being able to script out everything in advance. We had to count on fortune, timing and flexibility to get what we needed. We had to rely solely on reality, on what was out in the streets that particular morning. No casting, no rehearsals, no reshoots, no nothing.

The response was nothing short of phenomenal. The Gulf War was going on at the time, and restaurant sales were down an average of 15-20 percent. Chevys boosted sales 15 percent system-wide. Some stores were up 200 percent. The campaign won everything from a gold Lion to a gold Effie, plus four Clios.

Its success was the result of two things: 1) It was something no one had ever seen before, and 2) it was totally reality-based. I would love to claim (or maybe I wouldn’t) that the campaign was the forefather of reality TV. The chord it struck is similar to the one that shows like Survivor and The Bachelor strike today: At its best, reality trumps fiction. Unscripted beats scripted. Truth is not only stranger than fiction, it can be a heck of a lot more entertaining.

One night my 11-year-old daughter and I watched America’s Funniest Home Videos, followed by The Best Commercials You’ve Never Seen. We laughed uproariously at the former. Not a peep during the latter. I asked my daughter why she thought that was. “Dad, the video stuff was real,” she said.

No matter how great the writing or even the acting in a spot, there is no substitute for reality. Mind you, reality is usually pretty boring. But at its best, something real and spontaneous stays with you, because it touches what is human in all of us.

When a spot is scripted, it tries to copy reality. But it’s always a forgery. That’s why you need to hire a Pytka, so he can recreate reality as best he can through casting, lighting, direction, etc. Consequently, it can be deduced that a real message with real delivery is more effective than one that has been “handcrafted” by scores of creatives, clients and $25,000-a-day directors.

It’s said that the truth will set you free. And although we’re usually asked to sell detergent rather than the truth, something told truthfully will always resonate with consumers.