Finally: permission to go there

A few issues ago, I picked a fight with an advertising columnist who had attacked Home Hardware's TV spot about a Newfoundland war monument. Essentially, he seemed to be saying, 'Gardening equipment and war memories don't mix. No matter how tastefully...

A few issues ago, I picked a fight with an advertising columnist who had attacked Home Hardware’s TV spot about a Newfoundland war monument. Essentially, he seemed to be saying, ‘Gardening equipment and war memories don’t mix. No matter how tastefully you execute it, DON’T GO THERE.’

I’ve been thinking about that for awhile, and I’ve decided that ‘DON’T GO THERE’ is such a scary concept – though a common one – that it deserves a column in itself. I think the right to go into risky places should be strongly encouraged; and my Exhibit A is going to be last year’s Bud Light campaign I’ve admired for some time.

Bud Light’s TV advertising is based on the far-from-new idea that guys like to go off and drink beer with guys. (I remember vividly the time a senior New York executive made this breakthrough discovery, and stomped up and down a boardroom shouting, ‘That’s it! Male bondage! Male bondage!’)

The Bud Light campaign gets gutsy by taking the guys-with-guys concept a step further. It openly acknowledges the seldom spoken fact that guys have to get away from women to drink beer with guys.

Oh, I can see the panic surrounding that one in its development days. Voices of reason would have been everywhere. ‘Well, I know women aren’t our central target market, but they’re influential in purchase patterns… Gee, aren’t the caveman days over? I know lots of Sensitive, New Age Guys… There will be lobby groups, there will be newspaper letters, there will be doom blah blah blah…’

Somehow, the Bud Light creative team managed to forge ahead, anyhow. And they thought up a campaign that is genuinely funny, with exactly the right degree of tongue-in-cheek and absurdity-played-straight.

You know how it goes. The people at Bud Light, empathizing with the trapped male, develop handy aids to free him up so he can go out and slop suds with other trapped males. An attic-cleaning ejector cannon. A rigged 24-hour figure-skating channel. And my personal favourite, Vikings-for-hire to break up dull gatherings. (I’m not sure there’s a more beautifully underplayed line in commercial history than ‘Honey, the family reunion is cancelled. Vikings.’)

Other beer companies have picked up on the battle-of-the-genders, but not with anything resembling the Bud Light wit. Molson’s ‘Had Ex Lately?’ lays its humour on with a shovel, and Old Milwaukee has a new radio spot bashing a militant vegetarian so hard that I almost start to root for her.

But that’s the point. If you’re going to go into ‘DON’T GO THERE’ Land, you’ve got to do it well – as Mel Brooks evidently has in Broadway’s new smash The Producers, featuring ‘Springtime For Hitler.’ As did the creators of the breast-cancer commercial based on a teen-aged boy’s mammary obsession. As did the makers of the classic Alka-Seltzer spot, with two hugely rotund men, an old pro and a rookie, in the locker room at halftime of a pie-eating contest. (That one was so successful, it’s rumoured that an agency executive was fired for having tried to kill it.)

I’ve told my own personal ‘DON’T GO THERE’ story before, but it’s time to tell it again. I worked with Jim Henson of the Muppets fame to create a monster with a mania for potato chips. After two commercials were actually shot, a client EVP threw a tantrum and killed them, because monsters and potato chips don’t go together. Ruins the appetite appeal, or some such rot.

Jim Henson took the same character to Sesame Street, changed his mania from chips to cookies, and the Cookie Monster was born. Ol’ Cookie did pretty well, too. In fact, Henson spent most of his tragically short life going into ‘DON’T GO THERE’ territory and, as a result, he did wonderful things for our funny bones and for other softer, more emotional parts of us.

Go into dangerous territory, creative people. Go carefully – you have to be very smart once you get there. But go.

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 or by e-mail at burgwarp@aol.com.