It used to be that food advertising recalled a kinder, gentler -- and largely fictional era of smiling families seated around the kitchen table, enjoying some kind of branded meal that magically brightened an already glorious day.
No longer. Consider just a couple of recent examples, like an online ad from General Mills for Fiber One brownies that was built around a pot reference. Or a spot by Kraft Foods' Athenos brand, which featured a Greek grandmother accusing her granddaugher of dressing like a prostitute.
Recently, one food brand took it to an entirely new level, referencing the sexual habits of parents. That's the unspoken, but obvious, reference in Ragu's spot featuring a kid catching his parents in the act in their bedroom. As Ad Age's Creativity put it, the ad -- which premiered during the Olympics -- likely caused "some awkwardness in living rooms everywhere."
Funny? Lots of people think so, judging by some of these Facebook comments. Controversial? A little bit, judging by those same comments. Appetizing? Not exactly. The biggest question: How exactly will this sell pasta sauce?
"We didn't want to come out with another utilitarian food ad," said Mike Dwyer, U.S. foods director for Ragu-owner Unilever, discussing Ragu's strategy with Ad Age. The campaign, called "Long Day of Childhood" by creative agency BFG9000, also includes a spot in which a boy's face is wiped off with his mom's spit and another one in which a girl wonders why her hamster looks different (because her parents tried to replace her dead one without telling her).
"It can be tough being a kid," Mr. Dwyer said. "And when it's tough being a kid, mom and dad want to comfort their kids and the way they do that is through meal time, and Ragu sits squarely in that space," Mr. Dwyer said.
Spit to sell sauce?
But spit isn't exactly appetizing. So why even risk putting that image in someone's head while trying to sell them sauce?
"The key is you have an insight that you can tap into that people go, 'Oh yeah, I've been there,' " Mr. Dwyer said. The insight with the campaign, he added, is that "there are all these trials and tribulations growing up [that are] universal." So Ragu references those with "humor and light-heartedness and that's what really grabs [consumers] and brings them in," he said.
Mr. Dwyer, whose previous experience at Unilever includes marketing for Axe, said he is trying to replicate the company's advertising approach on personal-care products, which is to "use humor and entertainment to create emotional connections with consumers."
Ragu could use a lift. While it is the Italian sauce market leader, sales for its top-selling variety, Ragu Old World Style, dropped 5.04% in the year ending July 8, according to SymphonyIRI, which excludes Walmart data. Mr. Dwyer cited category-wide woes, saying sauce consumption is down as consumers experiment with different cuisines, like Indian food. So Ragu is trying to break through in what Mr. Dwyer described as a "sea of red" and "a lot of me-too brands" in sauce, positioning Ragu as a brand that "kids want to eat and moms want to serve."
The TV campaign follows a Facebook effort earlier this year, called "Ask Ragu," in which the brand produced online videos answering questions from consumers like how to prevent kids from bickering at meals. "Feed the evil kid first," was Ragu's answer.
"The first instinct is to treat moms like they are these wonderful multi-taskers ... and they are saints and stuff," said Gerry Graf, BFG9000 founder and chief creative officer. But "moms are kind of sick of that," he added. "They just want to be talked to like a regular person." And "when brands speak like human beings, people tend to trust them a little more."
Ragu launched the TV campaign because "we thought we could go a lot bigger and a lot broader," Mr. Dwyer said. The inspiration for the new work is a grade-school essay by Henry, Mr. Graf's 8-year-old nephew. The title was "If I Ran the World" and Henry's responses included doing away with kid annoyances, like bees and wasps and bossy teachers. "That's what got us in the idea of a tough day of childhood," Mr. Graf said.
So who was the inspiration for the ad where kid walks in on his parents doing it?
"I'm going to say it was a personal experience, but I'm not going to say if it was my childhood or if it was a present-day type thing," Mr. Graf said, laughing. "Know what I mean?"