Some Like It Hot

Wieden + Kennedy copywriter Mike Byrne has won what most of his peers consider to be the highest creative honor, the Grand Prix at the International Advertising Festival at Cannes. His Nike spot “Tag” took the prize this year. And Byrne, 32, has something of a dream job, working for an iconic, creatively adventurous client. But when asked recently what type of assignment he’d love to get his hands on, his response is, “toothpaste.”

Yes, toothpaste. For many creatives, the prospect of working on a packaged-goods assignment no longer elicits groans or stuffy-client jokes. Rather, it’s the final creative frontier, the one place where, in a been-there-done-that-yesterday business, the impact of a strong campaign idea or breakthrough execution can be felt well beyond a 30-second run. Tooth paste, Byrne says, “would be a great opportunity to explore a new frontier in a new category.”

While consumer packaged goods—which account for $7.5 billion in spending annually, or 10 percent of all paid advertising—have a long way to go before the category is deemed sexy, it is inching toward a European mentality: that any product can be a forum for interesting, even irreverent work.

Look at what Bartle Bogle Heg arty in New York has done with a deo dorant. To introduce Unilever’s Axe to the U.S. market this summer, ads aimed at 18-24-year-old males show an attractive woman demonstrating the product by spraying it across the chest and under the arms of a male mannequin, which she then finds irresistible. It’s the “Axe effect.” Among clips on the Internet illustrating the Axe effect, one features a girl who can’t keep her hands off her cousin who uses the product. Though the strategy is conventional, the outrageous execution is entirely novel.

BBH isn’t the only shop attempting to have a little fun with clients traditionally perceived as too boring to bother. How else to explain dragon-slaying maidens for ThermaSilk, booty montages for Cottonelle, Dial’s toilet-water dog tricks, Mitchum’s smelly dad or Secret’s soap-opera style romance?

Bozell executive creative director Tony Granger, who moved to the New York agency from TBWA\Hunt\ Lascaris in South Africa, ad mits he was “a bit dumbstruck” to find that U.S. creatives often treat packaged-goods accounts like “the poor cousin of all the others.” But he says that in the two years he’s been here, “there’s been a big difference in the way the creative community is looking at packaged goods.”

As an example of breaking with tradition, he points to a recent campaign his agency produced for Bristol-Myers-Squibb’s Exced rin. It’s missing the obligatory graphics that illustrate how fast the pill works and the closeups of faces wincing in pain, and nobody talks straight into the camera, grinning with newfound relief. (“That kind of stuff just doesn’t work,” Granger says.) One execution for the new no-water-needed QuickTabs opens on an uncomfortably silent couple at a restaurant. The woman takes a pill out of her purse, pops it in her mouth and throws her glass of water into her date’s face. “New Excedrin QuickTabs melt in your mouth fast for headache relief so you can save your water for other things,” says the voice over. The screen goes to a product shot as her date says, “I didn’t know she was your sister.”

While today’s harsh economic conditions are considered a barrier to creativity, the few marketers willing to be different have an advantage. Says Gran ger: “You don’t break through with average advertising, especially now. Ave rage advertising that needs massive amounts of media to be noticed, that throws lots of money at a mediocre idea, is a waste of money.”

The most obvious way to stand out is to zig when others zag. Creatives complain that the packaged-goods formula is so benefit-driven that most brands get recall value through the sheer volume of the media buy, not from the power of the message. “You might remember an annoying mne monic or a little graphic of penetrating heat, but what else do you leave the consumer with?” asks Tom Gil more, group creative director at GSD&M in Austin, Texas.

With partner Rich Tlapek, Gil more created Dial’s latest campaign, which broke in January. To help the brand’s $10 million media budget compete against heavy-spending competitors like Procter & Gamble’s Dove, “we tried to make anti-bacterial soap as direct and interesting as we could,” says Gil more. The spots humorously point out how gross everyday life can be—in one, a dog drinks from the toilet before running to greet its owner with excited licks all over her face. “You’re not as clean as you think,” says the voiceover, adding, without the jingle, “Aren’t you glad you use Dial?”

The Kaplan Thaler Group’s 6-year-old campaign for Clairol’s Her bal Es sences—in which the hair and body-wash products promise a “totally organic experience,” complete with exaggerated displays of erotic pleasure—is one example of how deviating from the norm can get results. Though critics have attacked the work as corny and sexist, it won a 1997 Effie Award for effectiveness.

Why don’t more clients get adventurous? “It takes a little guts to stray from the norm. [Dial] took a chance,” says Gilmore. The bottom line: “If they test well, they will be aired.”

The category’s historically stringent reliance on consumer testing is a frequent complaint from creatives, who say that good ideas get killed. “The big gest problem I have with … manufacturing-product [companies] is they try to manufacture advertising. They apply the same mind-set to advertising,” says Mark Tutssel, deputy executive creative director at Leo Burnett in Chicago.

This summer, Burnett launched a serial-style campaign for P&G’s Secret deodorant that explores a couple’s dynamics as they face life’s challenges. The husband tries to boost his wife’s confidence about asking for a raise, and the woman then decides to quit her job to go to art school; she pursues that goal in subsequent spots. The long-standing tag, “Strong enough for a man, but made for a woman,” was replaced with the more tantalizing “Keep it secret.”

“We’ve made a breakthrough with the Secret campaign,” says Tutssel. “But it’s hard.”

Getting clients to abandon tried-and-true methods is the most challenging aspect of a packaged-goods assignment, says Kathy Delaney, executive creative director at Deutsch, New York. “When you have these big companies that for years have been doing this formulaic advertising that has done well for them and tested well, they are very reluctant to try a different approach,” she says. “The struggle is to try to break free of that and get clients to be brave.”

For Revlon’s Mitchum, a deodorant brand that revived its advertising this summer after a nine-year hiatus, Deutsch delivered the efficacy positioning with a sense of humor, something most deodorant ads lack. In one spot, a man holds an infant who cries harder as it gets closer to him, stopping entirely when at arm’s length. “For an antiperspirant that won’t fail you, switch to Mitch um,” says the voice over.

“You have to sneak under the radar,” says Delaney. “You do that by hitting people where they live, making them say, ‘Hey, that could be me’ and making them rethink the product and the category.”

Pat Wheatley, vp of marketing for Mitchum, says the lighter approach is needed for the brand to go younger than its current 35-and-up market. “Anti-perspirant can be taken very seriously,” she says. “We seriously communicate efficacy in a way that is clever and emotionally engaging.”

With Axe, the client team is small and empowered enough to make quick decisions about its advertising, says Diggi Thomson, Axe brand director. And the brand, which has a history of success with its overseas advertising, isn’t trapped in tradition.

“It’s really about the attitude of the clients going into creating work,” Thomson says. “There isn’t a lot of brilliant consumer-packaged-goods ad vertising. It takes a desire to be bold and to break some rules. You’ve got to feel a bit nervous—if not, it’s probably been seen and done before.”

Sometimes creatives can get too bold, admits Mike Campbell, executive creative director of J. Walter Thompson in New York, whose ac counts include Kimberly-Clark’s Cottonelle and Pfizer’s Listerine. For a recent spot for Nabisco’s Crispy Thins, “we had to keep going back to the drawing board [after testing],” he says. “We were trying to be overly clever. It became a bit obtuse.”

The agency ended up putting the work that died in testing into the final spot, titled “We Tried Everything.” It features an agency team struggling to come up with a commercial for the new cracker.