I read an article in the Chicago Tribune awhile back about a new ad for Wheat Thins done by an agency named The Escape Pod. The ad is based on the realization by someone at the agency that, imbedded in the name “Wheat Thins”, are the words, “Eat This.” According to one of the principals of the agency, Vinny Warren, “In terms of concepts, it’s just amazing that it exists.” (Vinny Warren, by the way, is credited with having created the “Whassup?” campaign for Budweiser back in the day. He has an impressive, accolade-laden resume and portfolio.)
Being old, I wasn’t even aware of the existence of The Escape Pod. I visited their website, looked at the work, read the “about” section, which consists of a testimonial by one of their clients, Dana Anderson, who now works at Kraft and used to work at DDB, where Vinny also used to work.
Their website is appropriately modern and cool. Most of their work is appropriately modern and cool. There’s clever stuff. There’s pretty stuff. There’s charming stuff.
So why am I so bothered by this agency and much of their work? I think it’s because I’m officially old.
I keep measuring ads and ad campaigns according to old school, obsolete criteria like, “Is there an idea? And, if so, is it a good idea, an idea with legs?”
I have no doubt that Vinny Warren is a talented ad guy. He thinks in interesting ways about his clients’ businesses.
So, again, what’s my problem? Why am I grinding my teeth.
Well, I’ve been on record for a long time as being disdainful of the whole “Whassup?” thing, since, as I understand it, it was essentially ripped off from an independent film. Not only was it a one-off “idea” that they lamely tried to stretch into a whole campaign, it wasn’t even Vinny’s or DDB’s or Budweiser’s idea. If I’m wrong in my understanding, please set me right.
Now, we have this Wheat Thins ad that garnered lots of positive press. (And, by the way, shouldn’t it be “Eat These“? It was a very successful ad, if for no other reason than it garnered lots of positive press. I acknowledge that the way in which they executed this “idea” in a commercial is very effective, making the most out of this newly discovered coincidence about the words inside the name.
The cynic in me, of course, assumes that The Escape Pod is not the first agency to discover this “concept”. Given how long this brand has been around, and how many copywriters have worked on this account, I doubt that this “concept” was never stumbled upon before. But if it was stumbled upon previously, whoever discovered it was unable to come up with a TV execution that leveraged the discovery well, or else they failed to sell the execution within the agency, or perhaps to the client, for whatever reason. Of course, this is all pure speculation on my part, and t’s beside the point I may be trying to make.
My main issue with this “concept” is that it’s not really a concept. It’s a curious word thing. It’s not an idea upon which an ad campaign could be built. It’s just a one-off that has nothing to do with the product or its benefits. Just as “Whassup?” was not a concept upon which an ad campaign could be built. It was just a funny one-off. Nothing wrong with taking advantage of this curious accident. But thinking it’s somehow an idea, that’s where I have an issue.
These days, the ad philosophy made famous by CP+B—to make their clients’ brands famous—seems to hold sway. I assume that The Escape Pod shares that philosophy, and by that standard, the Wheat Thins spot is very successful. Will it have any impact on the sales of Wheat Thins? Time will tell. But if sales go up, it won’t be because the advertising touted some benefit you could derive from eating Wheat Thins, like that they taste good or whatever. It will only because it brought the Wheat Thins brand into the consciousness of those who saw the advertising, and perhaps reminded them that the product exists. It seems that this is the goal of more and more advertising.
Another reason that looking at The Escape Pod and its body of work caused me to realize I’m officially old is that I can’t shake the old school bias regarding that sacrosanct unit—the 30 second spot. The advertising world has been largely unshackled from this constraint. When you’re making videos to be viewed online, they can be any old length. This is certainly liberating in many regards. But me, all I see is flabby, bloated “online commercials” that may or may not have worked, had they been forced into the old 29-second mold. Absent this discipline, sloppy thinking can and does run rampant.
One-offs, time-liberated online videos and other such departures from the old paradigm seem clearly to be a big part of the future of advertising until and unless the pendulum swings back at some point. I can’t fault agencies like The Escape Pod for having adapted to this new world. Those agencies—and ad folks—who don’t find some way to adapt won’t survive.
As for me, I’ve adapted by specializing in that aspect of advertising that is media infinite, byte-sized, text-sized, tweet-sized, short-attention-span proof, universally and eternally in demand and always in short supply: good taglines. Call it a tagline, a slogan, a motto, a catch phrase, a rallying cry, an anthem. Whatever you call it, and in whatever context or environment it resides, a condensed, evocative bit of brand expression will always be needed by smart brands. As long as I’m able to keep on coming up with these potent little brand bursts, I’ll be in business. My little corner of adworld is bulletproof. And, so far, age-blind as well.