Respect for women fortified

Turning lemons into lemonade is one thing. But what Elspeth Lynn and Lorraine Tao did for Kellogg's Special K cereal was something else altogether. They transformed a campaign they considered antiquated and offensive into a headline-grabbing, award-winning, brand-boosting, border-busting cultural phenomenon....

Turning lemons into lemonade is one thing. But what Elspeth Lynn and Lorraine Tao did for Kellogg’s Special K cereal was something else altogether. They transformed a campaign they considered antiquated and offensive into a headline-grabbing, award-winning, brand-boosting, border-busting cultural phenomenon.

Even today, as founding partners (with Andrew Macaulay) of Toronto’s Zig agency and basking in kudos for other campaigns, the duo remains proudest of what they created for Special K.

The year was 1997 and they were relatively low on Leo Burnett Toronto’s totem pole – Tao as a copywriter and Lynn as an art director – when they inherited the creative for Special K from a departing male team. They loved the opportunity but hated the campaign theme. ‘It was about women wanting to look good, not for themselves, but for their men,’ Lynn recalls. ‘We thought it was just so 30-years-ago.’

Tao says she and her creative partner were firmly convinced that the product should be promoted from exactly the opposite point of view, an approach that was eventually dubbed, ‘Look good on your own terms.’ But there was a problem.

‘Strategically, even though its advertising was pushing this horrible stereotype that women must diet, Special K was doing well [in its category]. So when we proposed a radical new direction, some people got all worried and basically said why fix something that doesn’t seem to be broken?’

How did the team combat that argument? By spying a small window of opportunity and squeezing through it, Lynn explains. Rather than tackling the entire brand, they created a small magazine campaign aimed at a new segment of interest to the client: women ages 18 to 24.

The first step was to run focus groups among these consumers. Over and over, they heard comments to the effect that women were fed up with emaciated models who were preposterously far from their own physiques and aspirations.

Based on these results, which dovetailed completely with their own views, Tao and Lynn came up with three print executions, none of which directly depicted cereal eating.

‘But before we actually showed a thing to the client [headed by then Kellogg Canada president Fred Jaques], we gave them a 45-minute chronological backgrounder on why it was time for Special K to do what we were proposing,’ says Lynn. ‘By the time we finished outlining the thinking behind the work, Fred was totally motivated. And it was his fearlessness and conviction that made it all happen.’

The three magazine ads Jaques greenlit that day remain memorable four years later.

One depicted an extremely thin woman, (which Lynn says was ‘almost lifted from an actual Harper’s Bazaar photo because we wanted to show what the reality was,’) above the headline: ‘If this is beauty, there’s something wrong with the eye of the beholder.’

A second ad featured a slender woman beside a man with a beer belly. Headline: ‘Ironically, she’s the one who’s worried about her weight.’

The third print ad starred a chubby, middle-aged man trundling down a fashion catwalk in a ludicrously skimpy and tight-fitting outfit. Headline: ‘Designers should try wearing what they design for us.’

The results were explosive. Soon after the ads began appearing, the client was flooded with thank-you letters from consumers. The news media went wild. Lynn, Tao and their agency attracted publicity, praise and awards hand-over-fist. And within six months, Special K’s base-line sales were boosted by 18 points, says Tao, while brand awareness soared.

What was the client’s take on the campaign’s success? At the time, Jaques told reporters it set a new gold standard. Today, Mark Childs, Kellogg Canada VP of marketing, says it ‘helped Kellogg create a stronger connection with women in a lighthearted way through ads that were both bold and thought-provoking.’

Lynn and Tao got the go-ahead for expansion throughout the brand. And a year later, when the TV spots they dreamed up proved to be as triumphant as the print execution, they were made VPs at Leo Burnett.

The TV spots went over so well – despite the absence of cereal bowls – that Kellogg’s U.S. headquarters, which until then had used Leo Burnett’s American team exclusively, imported the most talked-about spot.

It was called ‘Resolutions’ and featured a bunch of average-looking drinking buddies in a bar. What was anything but average was their dialogue, which consisted of the type of body-conscious comments routinely voiced by women. ‘This year, I will stop asking ‘Do I look fat?” went one. ‘I have my mother’s thighs. I have to accept that,’ went another.

So what’s become of their Special K campaign since Tao and Lynn hopscotched from Burnett to Ammirati Puris and now to Zig?

Childs says that, ‘While the ‘Look good on your own terms’ slogan may not be overt in every ad, the consumer take-away is very clear and consistent.’

But Tao responds to the question with a groan. And Lynn buries her head in her hands before explaining their mutual distress. ‘We were so excited and so proud and we had this incredible feeling that it was about more than just advertising a product; it was about culturally helping women.

‘But what’s being done now is mostly appalling. We do like the [current] TV spot with the man on the beach applying suntan lotion. But last New Year’s, they had a jogging turkey chasing a woman and giving her a hard time about eating too much over the holidays.

‘It was the exact antithesis of what we did.’