Testimonial from the top

As the summer days meander into August, I keep seeing and hearing things that remind me of brilliant points I made a few issues back. So, having absolutely no brilliant points today, I will reprise two of those:

As the summer days meander into August, I keep seeing and hearing things that remind me of brilliant points I made a few issues back. So, having absolutely no brilliant points today, I will reprise two of those:

1. If you can find somebody interesting to make a testimonial for you, do it.

I made this point quite recently, and some dot-com company has already taken me very, very literally. They found God.

I don’t mean they found God like people do on the Vision Channel. I mean they found God, probably in an ACTRA casting session, and they hired him to do a couple of radio spots. (Does God work for scale? I wonder. Henry Ramer never would.)

I have no idea who the company is or what they’re selling, but I sure am intrigued by their guts. God gets on mike, deep echo-chambered voice and all, and harangues a stooge for not using the product. Actually, they never call God by name, but I’m pretty sure they’ve got the Right Guy, because they surround him with vocalizing angels who sound like a bad day at Motown. He explains their presence with a zinger: ‘Even when you’re really good, you got to have back-up singers.’

I don’t like the spots much, because as I’ve said before, when you go into areas of questionable taste, you’ve got to be really, really good. There was a classic God TV spot once, but as in the movie Rebecca, it was all underplayed and the major character never appeared.

It was a low-budget TV spot for a small New York meat packer called Hebrew National Salami. A Jewish man appeared on camera with the product, and spoke about how his competitors, like Hebrew National itself, had to pass tough federal food inspections. Then, with impeccable timing, he slowly raised his eyes to the sky and added, ‘But we also answer to a Higher Authority.’

A Hall-of-Fame spot, with an idea, instead of back-up singers.

2. Believable scenarios work better than unbelievable ones.

Sometimes, sitting in your creative cubbyhole, you are very tempted to make up complicated concepts that require what Hollywood calls a ‘back story.’ There’s this political movement, you see, or there’s this subversive organization. It sounds great in the boardroom, but somehow, in real life, it doesn’t usually work.

The example I gave in a previous column was for McDonald’s new superburger, the Arch Deluxe. They developed a bunch of kids picketing McDonald’s in protest, because McD was selling something with an adult taste. I said it wouldn’t work, because years before, I had created the identical campaign for Tang, and it didn’t work then either. For once I was right. The campaign disappeared, and soon thereafter, so did the Arch Deluxe.

I felt the same way about the Rogers Internet access campaign based on ‘Download rigor mortis.’ They created a whole disease, caused by waiting in front of one’s computer – with patients in agony, ambulances rushing to hospitals, overstressed doctors, the whole ER deal. It was full of clever touches, but had no empathy. From my viewpoint, anyway, it didn’t work.

Rogers must have wondered about it as well, because after a while it was replaced. The new campaign didn’t have people with a fake disease. It still had people waiting in front of their computers, but these people were singing the great national anthem of boredom, ‘Ninety-nine Bottles of Beer on the Wall’ (with the occasional ‘Kumbaya’ thrown in.)

It still had the same message – don’t sit there, get cable access – but this campaign was much more real. It didn’t build a big parody for me, it just captured the way I feel waiting while my machine is going ‘Staticky staticky boop boop boop.’

The best campaigns and the best sitcom jokes (see Bud’s ‘Whassup?’ or any Seinfeld rerun) don’t usually come from boffo gag lines. They come from real situations, slightly twisted, but only slightly.

At least that’s my Viewpoint, today only slightly recycled.


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.