Master of Puppets

In the old Nike commercials, when Spike Lee (as Mars Blackmon) poked fun at his rich friend Michael Jordan, he’d look (way) up at him and say, “Money, it’s gotta be the shoes!”

Zappos, the online retail giant recently bought by Amazon, started in 1999 by selling footwear, but it knows that the money (and the success) is not in the shoes — or the handbags, the clothing or any of the other product lines it now carries. It’s in the customer service.

Anyone who’s been on hold with an airline, credit-card company or healthcare provider and has also dealt with a Zappos agent will marvel at the contrast. (It’s night and day. Plus, Zappos reps are on duty 24 hours.) How has the company bred this cult of superhuman service types? Perhaps they have a special farm out there in Henderson, Nev., where babies are raised to be helpful, kind and polite (in miniature cubicles, wearing tiny headphones?).

I myself had the experience of ordering a bathing suit from Zappos, which seemed to arrive about seven minutes later. To my embarrassment, the design was so complicated that I couldn’t figure out how to put it on. I had to call and ask for help, and the rep acted as though explaining how to step into a bathing suit was an everyday thing. I felt amazingly connected. It was true retail therapy.

So, this new ad campaign from Mullen, its first since it won the account (in a crazy review with more than 100 contenders chasing the $7 million business), smartly goes right to the core of Zappos’ focus on customer service. And as with many online giants these days (Google, etc.), this online innovator is building its brand through good old TV commercials, with spots aimed at women 24-54 running on cable outlets like E! and Bravo. (Aaron Duffy, who worked on Google’s “Parisian Love,” was the director.)

Using audio from actual calls, the ads present the Zappos employees and the customers on the other end of the line as puppets, which makes the entire interaction heightened, funnier and, oddly, even more human. Whereas a character like the BK King has a hard, plasticized face, which adds irony, here the spark comes from soft, homemade materials, which is cozy.

You can’t help but cotton to the so-called “Zappets,” who are based on real reps, with their tiny wigs and personally decorated cubicles. The customer end is equally meticulously detailed and engaging. The puppets have long, ovoid-shaped faces, which come off as remarkably alive. The eyes and eyebrows are animated, which add to the expressiveness.

The campaign also includes print ads, which show diorama-like scenes, with the puppets sitting in a shipping box, giving advice. “So you’re looking for shoes, and you want toe cleavage, but not too much toe cleavage,” a rep says in one.

Each TV spot starts with the super: “Actual call with Zappos.” That’s technically true but a tad misleading. The Zappos employee is real and does not know the call is staged, but the caller is an actor working from an agency script. Given my own experience, I would think there are plenty of actual calls that would be equally entertaining (though perhaps not as easily adapted to the 30-second format).

The puppets resemble the ones on Crank Yankers, but here the scenarios are meant to demonstrate how unflappable these employee are, not to prank them. The phone-call setup provides each one with a perfect little narrative — a beginning, middle and end.

My favorite — the most neurotic but still soulful — is “Emotion.” A woman calls and says she ordered a dress but it came too promptly, and she’s not “really ready for it.” She tells the Zappet that it’s “in the garage, under a tarp,” and asks if she can return it. He kindly says she can. (Shipping, both ways, is free.) Then, as if he’s taken sensitivity training in just this issue, he adds, quietly, “You’ll have to touch the box, though.”