Inside DirecTV’s ‘Cable Effects’ Ads From Grey, the Funniest Campaign of the Year

Switch today ... or spiral into misery, self-loathing and despair

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IDEA: Having cable inevitably leads to misery, self-destruction and personal degradation. You lose everything and shave your head for money. You get beat up and left in a roadside ditch. You run into Charlie Sheen and reenact scenes from Platoon with him. You fake your own death and attend your funeral in disguise.

Grey's new DirecTV campaign (seven ads since January, with two more on the way) was initially meant to highlight features of the satellite-TV service that are superior to cable. But the creatives stumbled on a darkly comic structure for ads that seemed better suited to a broader attack—with each spot's hero having a cable problem that snowballs into bigger woes, leaving his life in tatters.

"We thought, 'Hey, wouldn't it be funny if this annoying cable issue spiraled into a domino effect of events that turned into total awfulness for you?' " said Grey associate creative director Steven Fogel.

Indeed, it has become, with the help of director Tom Kuntz, the funniest ad campaign of the year.

COPYWRITING: The latest spot is narrated, like the others, by an earnest, serious voiceover that describes the scenes as they unfold.

"When you wait forever for the cable guy, you get bored," he says. "When you get bored, you start staring out windows. When you start staring out windows, you see things you shouldn't see." (Our hero sees a body being loaded into a trunk.) "When you see things you shouldn't see, you need to vanish. When you need to vanish, you fake your own death." (He swims away from a boat on fire.) "When you fake your own death, you dye your eyebrows. And when you dye your eyebrows, you attend your own funeral as a guy named Phil Shifley. Don't attend your funeral as a guy named Phil Shifley."

The writers nailed the tone and structure in the first three spots. (They've been told it recalls a 1985 children's book called If You Give a Mouse a Cookie.)

The scripts were written and rewritten. "We might have a beginning or an end joke we like or a sequence we like," said Fogel. "We figure out a fun place to end things and then backtrack and fill in the gaps," added Grey acd Doug Fallon.

ART DIRECTION/FILMING: Visually, the spots have a shadowy edge that matches the subject matter, but they're rooted in realism. "Nothing is taken to a place of fake, hyperbolic goofiness," said Fogel.

Nine spots were shot in groups of three in and around Los Angeles, with each group taking five days to film. Kuntz, a master of absurdism, added little transitional elements to the scripts to aid the storytelling. His camerawork has a sense of foreboding as well, with a subtle, creeping movement adding to the unease.

TALENT: Kuntz is also a genius at casting and sought "pathetic-slash-tragic types," said Fogel. "They're not losers per se, but they can tell a sad tale just with their eyes."

Sheen, the one celebrity in the series, was perfect for a cameo. "He's the unofficial poster child of bad decisions and life spiraling out of control," said Fallon. "He was totally into it."

The voice actor, Robb Webb, recognizable as the voice of 60 Minutes, brought a humorous gravitas. "The contradiction of what you're seeing and what you're hearing just makes things funny," said Fogel.

SOUND: Sound design—a foghorn on the water, the hum of a fluorescent light in the bathroom, crickets at the funeral—also helps the storytelling. There is no music.

MEDIA: National broadcast and cable, and online. Nine spots feels like "a good number," said Fogel, although the agency is open to doing more.


Client: DirecTV
Spot: "Don't Attend Your Own Funeral"
Agency: Grey, New York
President/CCO: Tor Myhren
ECD: Dan Kelleher
ACD: Doug Fallon
ACD: Steven Fogel
Agency Executive Producer: Andrew Chinich
Agency Associate Producer: Lindsay Myers
Production Company: MJZ
Director: Tom Kuntz
Director of Photography: Chris Soos
Producer: Emily Skinner
Editor: Erik Laroi
Editor: MacKenzie Cutler
Sound Design: Sam Shaffer
VFX: Method NY
VO Talent: Robb Webb

@nudd Tim Nudd is a former creative editor of Adweek.