Tasty Philly spots a TV treat

There's another of those Philadelphia Cream Cheese spots on air. It seems that for as long as I can remember, a slightly kooky angel who lives on a white cloud in the middle of the bluest sky imaginable has been plugging...

There’s another of those Philadelphia Cream Cheese spots on air. It seems that for as long as I can remember, a slightly kooky angel who lives on a white cloud in the middle of the bluest sky imaginable has been plugging this stuff with charm and wit, anchored to an immutable strategic discipline that would make the Prussian General Staff of the last century look like a bunch of street-corner buskers.

In this instalment, the angel wakes a bit late from sleep in a white wrought iron bed to the sound of heavenly voices raised in song. She muses fetchingly upon why choir practice is always scheduled so early. She hustles along a cloud pathway to a white refrigerator, which contains a tub of Philadelphia Cream Cheese. She comments that without Philly, she’d never get anything to eat. A voice-over tells us it has a lot less fat than butter, as she spreads it on a bagel. The power line appears, A little taste of heaven. And before we fade to black, there’s one last angel joke. Behind her, a set of wings hangs from a white coat rack. She notices we’ve noticed, and does a little double-take. Sleep on those? she asks. And she gives us a vigorous head-shake. Takes another bite. And vanishes.

This campaign is its own little bit of advertising heaven, in which an iron-bound, relentlessly dogmatic formula is endlessly refurbished with fresh grace notes and little gags delivered with aplomb by a fine comedic actress. But the same stuff goes by again and again. The bagel. The tub. The spread. The less-fat claim. The fridge. The white props. The one-woman angel monologue. This is advertising somebody really believes in. I hope that’s because they can prove it works. Because in an environment ever more given over to stuff that looks like it was written in a cab on the way to the shoot, it’s a rare and polished jewel.

When you think about it, it’s damn near impossible by definition for anything that resembles a tiny perfect television spot to crawl, battered and bleeding, out of something structured like an advertising agency, get approved by ricocheting off God only knows how many levels at the client, and get back to the agency to be produced by the usual committees of tinkerers, amateur improvers and style police.

Who has time to dick around with every thought, every word in your daily newspaper? Impossible! They write it, they print it, end of story!

Ernest Hemingway takes a manuscript he’s jotted down and ambles in to the office of some unsung genius editor at Scribners, they go mumble mumble and a few months later, boom, they print The Sun Also Rises.

The sheer level of temptation that compels a couple of dozen people, many of modest storytelling talents, to mess around to a fare-thee-well with someone’s 30-second blurt of an idea is so pervasive. So much money at stake. So many careers to advance. So many to derail! Such a transparently accessible little trifle of a notion on one piece of paper! It’s such fun to give it a little tweak here and a tiny nudge over there! And best of all, it only takes a couple of nanoseconds! You do yours and then I’ll do mine and then we’ll give it to BOB!

Find places that produce brilliant advertising based upon sound strategy, and you will almost always find a power-crazed dictator with superb instincts, or perhaps an ayatollah, in that the word dictator misses the sense of religious omnipotence coupled with political absolutism that is required.

Without that kind of intensity of purpose, you get the Eureka vacuum cleaner spot where the chubby little daughter says it works good.

Mind you, it’s not unthinkable that stuff that is very bad can emerge from a totalitarian system. When you see the Microsoft air sickness bag commercial, you’ve got to wonder if it is the product of (a) the bungling committee from hell, or (b) a single Paragon of Absolute Evil.

We’re on a plane. Hogging the window seat, a pasty-faced, fifty-something, stressed-out male mutters feverish fragments of ideas to himself. The nice lady sitting beside him is fighting a wave of nausea, and losing. Turbulence strikes. Coffee spills. Mr. Pasty gets a brain wave. He snatches away the lady’s air sickness bag and scribbles a memo to himself on it. He hands it back to her. We hear her ralphing her guts out into the bag. As he glares at her, she folds it over, and hands it back to him. Not a single kind word passes between them. Not even a smile. Dumbstruck, you hardly notice the banal voice-over line: Where you get your ideas is your business. Helping you make them work is ours. Nice people? Yeah, right!

Barry Base creates advertising campaigns for a living. He creates this column for fun, and to test the unproven theory that clients who find the latter amusing may also find the former to their liking. Barry can be reached at (416) 924-5533, or faxed at (416) 960-5255, at the Toronto office of Barry Base & Partners.