Cast against type at your peril

'You got to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em...'...

‘You got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em…’

– K. Rogers

When you sit down at a card table, you should pretty much play with what you’re dealt. Oh, you can bluff once in a while at poker, or ‘psych’ at bridge…but if you keep playing your aces as if they were sixes, or vice versa, you’re going to wind up in the long run wearing a very unhappy face.

Bell Canada, sitting at the table with lots and lots of money in their jeans, recently dealt themselves an ace. His name is Vince Carter, and he plays basketball for the hometown Toronto Raptors. He plays the game so well that even in the Canadaphobic U.S. of A. (make that Canada-ignore-ic), he is a magazine cover boy being hailed as the next Michael Jordan.

Bell signed up Mr. Carter to promote their Call Answer system, which if memory serves me, has remained largely unflogged since their excellent introductory campaign calling it ‘The Invisible Answering Machine.’ They are staging a contest, offering as a prize courtside seats to Raptors’ games. They are promoting both the contest and the star shooter with a big budget, in television, radio, direct mail, and probably more.

But they have signed this ace, and proceeded to play him like a six.

The plot of the Bell message goes something like this. If you win these Raptors courtside seats in their contest, that will put you close enough to carry on a conversation with Vince Carter. Therefore, we the viewers/listeners/prospects get to listen to such a conversation.

Unfortunately, the conversation is inane. The actor playing the contest winner has been scripted and directed to be an idiot. No matter that he represents me, the John Q. Public who wants to win the contest. No matter that I don’t particularly like being portrayed as an idiot. No matter that the concept comes down to, ‘Buy our product and win our contest and get to be an idiot.’ They spent big bucks to do it this way. My guess is, the creative intent was humour.

Anyway, the guy sits courtside and carries on his dream conversation with Vince Carter. He asks Vince for advice on his love life, pulls out the old cliché about women and commitment, and eventually asks the superstar to be his best man.

Where does all this leave Vince Carter? It leaves Vince Carter, very understandably, staring at this fan/clown with total disdain.

One more thing about Vince Carter. In addition to being one hell of a basketball player, he is also a very charismatic young man. He is much more naturally extroverted than his hockey counterpart, Wayne Gretzky, and owns a smile that could solve all of California’s electricity problems in about five minutes. He’s easy to like. You want to like him.

So OK, let’s review. Bell Canada wants to sell its Call Answer service. They design a basketball contest, and hire the game’s reigning superstar. So far, so good.

Then, in a province where basketball still plays fourth fiddle to hockey, where the local team is still desperately trying to build a permanent fan base, they create a scenario portraying the basketball fan as an idiot, worthy of being emulated by nobody.

Then they take the multi-million-dollar superstar, the fan favourite, the future of the franchise whose contract will let him leave town in two years, and they direct him to scowl at the fan. There are plenty of pro basketball players who scowl at fans naturally. Carter doesn’t. You pretty much have to get him in a studio and urge him to look negative. Which is what Bell did.

As my esteemed former partner, Bob Wolowich, used to say…why dey do dis???!!!

Casting against type rarely works, even in the movies or the theatre. If you have Woody Allen, you go for funny. If you have John Wayne, you don’t ask him to strum the guitar and sing.

In advertising, it’s even riskier to play your cards against the way they were dealt. We have stuff to sell. We have 30 seconds to establish plot and character. We go with our talent’s strength. We hire Vince Carter to smile.

At least that’s what I’d do. But I suppose Bell’s way is more creative.

John Burghardt’s checkered resume includes the presidency of a national agency, several films for the Shah’s government in Iran, collaboration with Jim Henson to create the Cookie Monster, and a Cannes Gold Lion. The letterhead of his thriving business now reads ‘STRATEGIC PLANNING • CREATIVE THINKING’. He can be reached by phone at (416) 693-5072, by fax at (416) 693-5100 or by e-mail at