“…Your ad payoff is a Ralphie.”
This was the best critique I ever got.
In the movie A Christmas Story, Ralphie was decoding a super secret message to help Little Orphan Annie, the star of a radio program sponsored by Ovaltine. So, to get each clue, Ralphie had to drink a lot of Ovaltine. It became his obsession. He loved the show and he loved Ovaltine.
Finally, Ralphie attained the last piece of the puzzle. He slowly decoded the message letter by letter. The first letter was, “D,” then an “R,” then an “I” and finally the full message: Drink More Ovaltine. Ralphie was disappointed, let down, and swore never to drink Ovaltine again.
The punchline made the movie audience laugh, but in advertising such letdowns are a major creative and strategic error, alienating the consumer.
Ralphie was betrayed by the brand. It didn’t deliver—the hype was greater than the payoff. Hence, the consumer’s experience with the brand left a negative footprint.
I am a firm believer in this quote, “They May Forget What You Said, But They Will Never Forget How You Made Them Feel.”
How a product makes a consumer feel is the brand essence. It isn’t the font, it isn’t the color, it isn’t the messaging or the pretty image. Rather, it is a combination of all those things. And, when reviewing any incentives, tactics, ads, ask yourself that question: will Ralphie be disappointed? Is your imagery provocative, yet your headline and manifesto trite? Are you pushing the boundaries—inventing, or are you pandering to the audience, to the client, to your ECD?
Recently, there have been a slew of ads that I’m enamored with. Each one elicited an emotion that is still with me. Each one has a clear and unique personality. Each one is expertly structured and crafted.
The Richards Group geared RAMs campaign specifically for women. Strong women. Women with a will of iron and a character to match. The ad is a spoken and visual manifesto. The imagery is as powerful as the words, showing a surfer staring down a 50 foot wave, a marathoner gasping for breath. These women have little gas left in their tank, but they push through to get the job done, to tackle the obstacle that is themselves.
The last image on the screen is a little girl. She is looking straight at me, daring me, defying me. In her, I saw me when I was 10.
The keene understanding of their key customer gave the ad personality and a strong point of view. In order to communicate to their audience they honored her. They gave her an anthem—and a truck.
The Richards Group didn’t recycle the overused, over-market researched imagery. Their customer isn’t a Prozaic housewife polishing floors, baking cookies and carpooling. And, by not throwing a wide net, they caught this fish. Me. They spoke to me—not at me, but TO ME. It made me feel like they “got” me. And, in this life, isn’t that the ultimate goal? To be “gotten?” Isn’t that the whole concept of branding? To connect with a specific audience. To offer a product that enriches, solves a problem, because it understands.
Quilted Northern campaign by Droga5 leveraged bathroom humor to a higher plane of creativity. The insight is clear: no one cares or thinks about bathroom tissue unless it doesn’t work.
The ad series is seen from the perspective of bathroom objects: bathtub toys, a porcelain doll and a photo of an old relative. The punchline is always the same, “Bathroom and its tissue are easily forgettable for most, but some are not so lucky.”
I don’t want to describe these ads in detail, they must be experienced. My favorite are the wallpaper birds. I wonder if the creative inspiration was a visit to grandma’s bathroom in Long Island (or Jersey). The copywriter or designer sitting on the toilet, trying to avoid the creepy stares of kitchy chatchkes. We’ve all been there.
I admire the restraint—the artistry that went into this bathroom humor. That's the thing with Droga5's work. They produce ads that are thought out, fully baked, and it is evident they are not afraid to laugh at the product and at themselves. They take risks. Or what most agencies consider risks, because they do original work and offer and original point of view.The love for what they do shows in the details such as the VO. It gets a special nod of appreciation. The dry delivery has empathy and perfect comedic timing. It adds to the narrative, to the story, and sets the mood. And, I can’t help but wish I saw the outtakes of this idea to see its evolution. The payoff is intelligent and smart. It is an SNL skit more than a commercial.
Now, each day I go into the bathroom for one reason or another. And, I can swear my soap dispenser is staring at me with menace. These days, I turn it around to face the other way.
The final ad wasn’t an ad at all. It was a tactic—a “prank-tisement,” a stunt. But, unlike most in this genre, this not only raised awareness, it enabled the viewer to actually do something about the situation. The credit goes to a non-profit organization, Fashion Revolution.
A T-shirt vending machine was strategically placed in high traffic pedestrian areas in Berlin. It sold T-shirts for only 2 Euros. When the customer got close to the machine, it played a video, showing who was behind the cheap clothing we buy. It enlightened the viewer on the plight of child labor. Once the video ended, the user had a choice: he can either buy the t-shirt or donate the money to charity. The choice was theirs. No one bough t-shirts. I'm still trying to research how much money was raised.
Awareness is no longer a novelty. We have become hyperaware of everyone’s hangnails and minutiae. But, action is a rarity. I think people walked away not only having learned something, but feeling something as well. Empathy.
So how could the Ovaltine pay off been better? How do we avoid disappointing Ralphie?
Ovaltine didn’t need to tell Ralphie to buy the product. He was already sold on it. By beating him over the head with a hard sell, they undid the engagement. Perhaps by continuing the game, and giving him a super secret message, Ovaltine could have perpetuated the campaign, leaving a pleasant childhood memory rather than an anecdote.
And, customer loyalty from early age ensures a brand’s success. You want your customers to stay with the product through their life, recommend it, and pass it down to their children. But, to do that, a brand has to be open to evolution, yet remain authentic to their true foundation.
The evolution of a brand has only been done to perfection by one company I can think of and that’s Apple. Their legacy has a concrete foundation on which all their ads have been build. In the 1984 legendary Chiat Day Super Bowl commercial, Apple didn’t show their product or told you to buy it. They weren’t selling, they weren’t telling, they were SHOWING a mindset, a movement of people who were like me, who thought like me, who read the same books, watched the same movies. They “got” me. And, with that javelin throw, they had me hooked.
Through the years they had many campaigns, yet the message—or more accurately, the battle cry was always the same: we shatter paradigms. They personified their brand beautifully with Jason Long as Apple and John Hodgeman as PC. Again, selling the different ways of thinking. They showed black and white portraits of Maria Callas, Gandhi, Picasso. In all these ads, you never saw a computer, but you recognized the brand immediately.
Only recently has Apple began to showcase the functionality of the gadget. A phone, a computer, a watch has never looked as sexy and enticing. I’ve seen my guy friends drool over these beautiful innovations more than a Victoria Secret spot.
Apple, as a brand, has taken me and my peers through our lives and we passed it to our progeny, who remain loyal just like us. That takes innovation, evolution and brilliance on behalf of the client. Apple has not needed a stunt, or a YouTube channel to tout its brand. It created a solid foundation from the get go, it marketed to the right audience at the right time with the right message—one that withstands the test of time and never disappoints.
As for me and my ads, I have become hyper aware of the Ralphie Syndrome. It is always a struggle not to give into client demands or take the easy way out at 1am. But, the ads I mentioned serve as an inspiration and carry me through these obstacles. The client, along with the creative team, shared a goal and a mindset. These ads were crafted. Every period, every shot has a purpose, it made me feel triumphant, it made me laugh, it made me think, and it gave me a sense of belonging. It actually made me want to buy their product and stay a loyal customer. And, isn’t that what this game is all about?