CHICAGO (AdAge.com) -- If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, what about becoming the butt of a toilet-bowl joke?
Activia yogurt, which trumpets its digestive benefits, has become a point of parody on NBC's "Saturday Night Live." The Dannon product is only 3 years old, and reaching that level of recognition is no mean feat -- even if the pop-culture references tend to end in uncontrollable defecation.
Activia has definitely gotten people talking. The yogurt's ads, from agency Y&R, New York, feature actress Jamie Lee Curtis. Ms. Curtis has long been outspoken about body image and the degree to which celebrity images are doctored to fit an idiosyncratic ideal. She was the first well-known actress to make a point of appearing in widely circulated magazines without makeup or the benefit of Photoshop. Last year she appeared on the cover of AARP magazine naked, standing in a swimming pool. Now, at 50, Ms. Curtis has increasingly become known for her willingness to address other taboo topics, including incontinence among mature women.
'Breaking the ice'
When it comes to digestive health, "it's not something we talk about only at an office cubicle or during dinner," said Michael Neuwirth, Dannon's director of media relations. That's part of the reason the company was so happy to hear from Ms. Curtis, and to learn that she is an Activia fan. "She and the brand are breaking the ice on an issue that affects 87% of Americans, who suffer from occasional digestive-health trouble."
But that's where the pot shots get going. The first sketch, which aired last April, was a spoof of Ms. Curtis' first Activia ad. Comedienne Kristen Wiig appears in a gray pixie wig, inhaling a carton of Activia, and asks Ashton Kutcher, playing a commercial director, if he wants her topless as well. She commences reciting an Activia-commercial script, but stops short, due to what appears to be explosive diarrhea.
"Clearly we would not look to assess this as an ad equivalent because it plays in an entirely different realm for the consumers," Mr. Neuwirth said, adding that "SNL" has lifted lines directly from the company's ads, before taking the scene into "the corridor of comedy." "But nevertheless it is clearly an indication that some of the message of our advertising is resonating very well."
According to Dannon, about 80% of women age 35 to 64 were aware of Activia when asked about yogurt brands. The so-called unaided awareness was about 15%.
Representatives for "Saturday Night Live" were unavailable to comment for this story.
Blasting off shelves
Another sketch in January had Ms. Wiig playing Ms. Curtis on a celebrity game show. She was again eating Activia. In a sketch from last week's episode, Ms. Wiig was joined on the fake commercial set with a guest, as Ms. Curtis has been in recent ads. Soon the guest has an accident, and the commercial director, also eating Activia, has a seemingly sympathetic accidental movement. Ms Wiig also soils herself, but blames baked ziti gone bad, and all three agree to a five-minute break.
All jokes aside, the yogurt has practically blasted off supermarket shelves. Activia bowed in January 2006, and posted $130 million in sales during its first year, far surpassing the $100 million benchmark that qualifies as a new-product success story. Dannon doesn't release sales figures, but Mr. Neuwirth said that Activia has continued to grow sales, and that it is now one of the three best-selling yogurts in grocery.
Of course this isn't "SNL's" first brush of the toilet bowl. The show made a long-running gag of Colon Blow, a "high fiber" cereal. The fake Colon Blow ads clearly mocked the Total campaign, which stacked bowls of competitor cereals next to Total, based on various nutritional metrics.
Still, the skits seem an odd turn for a show that's been acting more like an ad agency of late, crafting Pepsi commercials under the "MacGruber" plotline. One spot even made it into the Super Bowl. "SNL" alum Tina Fey has also recently caught flack over what appeared to be a "30 Rock" product placement, for McDonalds' McFlurry. The fast feeder denied paying for the mention.