Skittles: Sugar High

In an inspired new Skittles spot, a man lives in a giant nest on the side of a mountain. Maybe it’s more technically a “crag” than a “side,” but “nest” is not code for some kind of fabulous modernist house-this is a genuine, deep tea-cup-style twigs-and-leaves structure. That’ll get your attention, even without knowing how the nester keeps his moustache trimmed or gets his food delivered.

Wait a minute-a giant black bird with fabulous talons flies overhead, rips open an oversize bag of Skittles and sprinkles several candies into the nestman’s mouth, treating him just like her baby. As the writers on Saturday Night Live know, there’s something hilarious about humans being fed like birds, with their heads and mouths upturned. A powerfully atavistic action, it also feeds into the whole raised-by-wolves myth and fantasy. It somehow makes the idea of living in a remote nest, getting deliveries, seem like a nice possibility if the next job doesn’t pan out.

But wait, there’s more. Even funnier and more preposterous is that the twigs guy is not the classic grooming-impaired hermit or backwoods Unabomber type. He’s clean-cut and wears a polo shirt and watch, and is weirdly middle-aged for a candy ad-he looks a bit like Tony Shalhoub, the Monk guy, crossed with Jamie Farr (he wore the dress on M*A*S*H).

He signals that he’s ready to be fed by sending out a birdlike trumpeting noise to the universe, like a “caw, caw.” He then acknowledges the Skittles delivery with a wave, a polite, “Thank you, thank you very much!” and a blooperish laugh-like he messed up the take-that makes the whole thing seem even more weird and raw.

And while this is obviously a CG bird of prey, we want to believe there’s a big back story here: The man who took a bird for his wife, a case of love conquering all cross-species issues that only the parties in the relationship can understand.( Hey, he speaks her language, and she makes him laugh.)

That’s a pretty profound 15 seconds of tape (the Sk-eagle has landed!), and as that spot suggests, Skittles’ new agency, TBWA\Chiat\Day (via Gerry Graf, in his first campaign at the New York shop), does away with the candy’s long-standing executions. That work gave us 28 seconds of positive wonder-woodlands, streams, waterfalls, wizards-a signature hail of Skittles and the little girl whispering, “Taste the rainbow.” This goes for something darker, crazier and more random-or over a bent-out-of-shape rainbow.

I always liked those Skittles spots-they were nicely produced and somehow managed to convey sweetness and wonder in a non-treacly way. But I checked in with my 14-year-old, and he said, “They were getting really annoying. Everyone’s tired of them.” Given the campaign’s 10-year run, and research attesting to the fact that kids were getting bored, the strategy-stretching makes sense. (This campaign also seems to skew older-like to the stoners who top their Taco Bell pig-outs with a taste of the rainbow and guys in offices who need a pick-me-up.)

That said, “Nest” is the only idea that really connects. The other two (one, set in an office, won’t be released until the fall) are funny in the sarcastic, Jackass-y way that’s becoming not so shocking for reaching teens. At this point, the real shocker would be a direct, sentimental sell.

The stoner sensibility certainly rides high in “Rainbow Sitting,” the weakest of the bunch. Three late-teen friends sit on a rainbow, thousands of feet above land, snacking. One dude in brown polyester pants asks, “What if this rainbow doesn’t exist and it’s just in our imag …” and with that, summarily drops off his multicolored perch. The sheer horror of the drop to planet Earth is muted by the intentionally obvious special effects-it looks like a back door opens and the kid slips into another dimension-and also by the fact that his mates just go on eating.

The half-serious tagline for both spots is, “Taste the rainbow, believe the rainbow,” delivered by a stentorian male announcer and backed by trippy, candy-colored graphics. (The look was actually taken from Superfriends, the ’70s cartoon that combined superheroes and a pet monkey named Gleek.)

The third spot, “Sweetest Little Rainbow,” is genuinely funny, although the setting is overly familiar: three young guys in shirtsleeves and ties, in an office. Two sit talking in a break room, and a third enters, eating Skittles. He has a literal shower of the candy above him, like a halo, wherever he goes, and the tap-tap-tapping of Skittles hitting the floor follows him around as well. (Research found that kids apparently like not only the Skittles taste but also the tactile and sensory experience of bouncing and throwing them.)

This guy is bouncing and throwing embodied. He emits a Skittles field that literally hits on his colleagues. When he asks if they’d like some, they back away. He comes back, with his entire vertical candy entourage, and offers the stuff again. Everybody remains deadpan and straight-faced, as if every office has a guy like this, and it’s quite funny. The tagline here is, “Hear the rainbow. Taste the rainbow,” which works better.

It seems this is a po-mo rainbow-a rainbow that makes fun of previous corny rainbows. This campaign doesn’t seem as solid or as large as the previous one, but it does offer some laughs and a new definition of PG-13 reality/fantasy magic. I myself am taken with the genuinely new, wacky idea of the private nest and that guy/bird relationship. Dorothy, we’re not in candyland anymore.