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John Oliver Rants About HBO's New Brand Campaign, and Then the Campaign Devours Him

By Published on .

HBO's iconic static opener is an icon of entertainment branding -- a subject of fascination for both everyman and intellectual, with many pondering how those fuzzy black and white visuals, elevated by a heavenly, choir-driven chord, manage to get viewers so riled up with anticipation. HBO "solves" that mystery in its new brand campaign, "It's What Connects Us," created out of Mekanism.

A hero spot gathers 61 stars from its various shows. Each stands before the camera delivering an indescript sound in the neighborhood of "um" or "ahh" while completely costumed and in character. Dwayne Johnson's Spencer Strasmore from "Ballers" adjusts his tie, as if looking in the mirror, while Issa Rae ("Insecure") checks herself out and gives a self-assured nod. Meanwhile, Big Bird's muttering seems a bit befuddled, John Oliver's "ahh" reads more like "what the f#ck is going on," as does that of "Game of Thrones" Jamie Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), gasping at his fake hand. More stars appear fast and furiously, their murmurs and mugs ultimately melding and shrinking to become the pixels and notes of the HBO opener.

The campaign features two straight-up celebrity extravaganzas. A third, also teasing "Last Week Tonight With John Oliver," pulls a meta move: it depicts the show host doing one of his classic rants, but on the premise of the campaign itself. "Nobody tunes in to HBO for the static. That is not a beloved sound… The fact you've managed to get the entire 'Game of Thrones' cast -- 'Hey, Jamie Lannister, make a noise with your mouth!' … It's impressive if it isn't some form of corporate bullying, by which I mean, 'Ahhh!'" At that point, he gets sucked into the vortex.

According to Chris Spadaccini, exec VP-consumer marketing at HBO, the decision to debut the campaign now was not sparked by increasing fray of original content from streaming services like Amazon and Netflix. Rather, the effort bows just as HBO is gaining more momentum from its hit "Big Little Lies," and ahead of what promises to be a robust spring and summer season. Its aim is to honor its own subscribers but also to catch the eye of newcomers.

"We challenged the agency to find a way to tap into our subscribers' emotional connection to our brand, but in a fun, unexpected way using our family of talent," he said. "How can we tap into that feeling of anticipation and excitement our viewer has before entering our world -- that feeling that is best captured by the iconic static that opens our programming? Mekanism came up with a cool idea of how we could bring that static to life."

"We thought of this literally and figuratively as a harmony of all those characters -- that's what the chord represents," said Mekanism Creative Director David Horowitz. "It's the voice of the channel. The reason you anticipate something great is that collective identity. You're so used to seeing that [opener] before a great moment that when you see it before a new show, you're already expecting something of a certain caliber."

According to Mr. Spadaccini, the HBO static intro was created in 1992, by Good Dog Advertising, under Creative Director David Hudson.

The new campaign represents a marked shift from brand messaging of the past. Previous efforts focused more on value propositions and depicting programming breadth through clip-based promos and more traditional trailers. Mr. Spadaccini said the new campaign "ties a ribbon" around the entire HBO family, while acknowledging the brand's heritage and status as a "cultural force. We were more literal in the past. Now there's definitely a desire to do more."

The ads will debut online, with first broadcast airing on HBO before "Real Time with Bill Maher." Other spots will roll out over a two-to-three-week period. Those will include show-specific executions for "Silicon Valley" and "Veep," and more cutting room material may appear in social media.

The production itself was quite the feat, rolling out over four months and in multiple locations -- basically, wherever the cast was shooting at the time, said Mr. Horowitz.

"We created a template production-wise that could be erected as we needed on set," said Mr. Horowitz. "It was very nontraditional, but we tried very hard to keep it cohesive. We took very seriously that this should all feel of one piece."

In the spots, even though many of the talents appear for just a fraction of a second, you're able to grasp the full breadth of their characters. To prepare them, the team prepped each actor with a number of motivations, and in some cases, props. "We went in with a plan and wrote up possible motivations that captured each personality. This could be done with a single sound, or a line that ended with that sound. First and foremost, we wanted them to be in character, not something that felt false to who they were."

In the case of John Oliver, his rant was 100% him and spontaneous, captured in a single take.

"We went into the campaign with a very definite idea and concept of how we saw it going, but we also recognized we were dealing with very talented actors and comedians, so we were open to getting things we couldn't plan for," said Mr. Horowitz. They had planned to do that spot and prepped him, but he was on his own in terms of dialogue.

"It was no surprise what we got was comedy gold," said Mr. Spadaccini. "It also shows something about our brand, that we never take ourselves too seriously."

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