Pete Favat raised his arms and cheered when a dog took a dump on the swanky sidewalk of Manhattan's Fifth Avenue. The Arnold Worldwide CD had been directing a spot in the "Truth" campaign, for the American Legacy Foundation - the one that catches passers-by poking their noses into piles of dog feces decorated with cute signs stating that poop contains ammonia, which tobacco companies also add to cigarettes. "I was so frustrated," he gripes about producing the "props" for the shoot. "We fed the dogs and waited around for the entire morning and had to make sure we were doing everything the right way because there was an animal control guy there." When the canines finally did their business, it was cause for celebration. "It was so bizarre," he chuckles. "We were in this really beautiful section of New York and here were 15 people standing around a golden retriever, jumping up and down because it went poop."
Such real-life stunts - which also include the guy in a grungy rat suit who sprawls himself along Times Square and the body bags that get stacked in front of a tobacco maker's corporate headquarters - have become staples of the much lauded but highly controversial "Truth" advertising, created by partner agencies Arnold in Boston and Crispin Porter & Bogusky/Miami. Spots like "Ratman" and "Dogwalker," produced out of Chelsea pictures, are among a growing number directed by Favat himself. Early in his career the CD once had aspirations to go behind the camera full-time, but stayed in advertising, which allowed him to spend more time with his family. Anyway, "there are like a hundred people who have much more talent than I do," he insists. But the commercials, shot in a renegade style with way-down-low camera angles, bear the mark of a pro. "I tell the creative teams, 'I don't want you to do this because you think this makes me like you or the idea better," he jokes. "I do it because I love doing it. My clients like it now too, because I never take a director's fee, so they end up saving quite a bit of money.'"
If there's anyone who knows how to deliver a message to kids, it's the 40-year-old Favat. At Boston agencies Ingalls Quinn & Johnson and Houston Effler, he and partner Rich Herstek (no longer in the business) became known for their flair for youthspeak in those risque Converse campaigns from the early '90s, featuring the likes of "Lupo the Butcher" and "Grandmama" (which put NBA star Larry Johnson in drag way before Dennis Rodman ever donned his bridal whites). "Pete's definitely like a big kid, but he takes his work deadly serious," says CPB's Alex Bogusky, co-creative director on "Truth." Bogusky notes how Favat's pretty keen at homing in on ideas with massive potential. "The 'Infect' campaign basically started as an aspect of a print campaign that we were doing," he recounts about the origin of the "Infect truth" tagline that now punctuates the campaign's commercials. "'Infect' was a very minor aspect of something else, but I just remember Pete really glomming onto the word and seeing 'campaign' in what was not a campaign at all at the time. He was able to identify a big thing in what looked like a little thing." On top of that, his intentions are in the right place. "He's just a super good person," adds Bogusky. "He's very talented, but he doesn't have a lot of ego. And beyond work, he's got a giant heart. Legacy is an account, and it's got all the complications of any account - hundreds of individuals, egos, politics - but Pete never forgets the mission that there's a kid or two out there that we've got to talk to."
Favat's mission has extended beyond his professional duties. He says his most important project to date is "I Can't Breathe," a documentary that aired on MTV last fall, about Pam Laffit, a woman he met while he was doing an anti-smoking spot for the Massachusetts Department of Health. She was diagnosed with emphysema at an early age, had a lung transplant at 29 and died at 31. Favat made the film out of Picture Park with Arnold producer Amy Feenan, whom he recently married (see Creativity, March 2001).
As far as advertising goes, Favat is also adept at reaching outside the teen scope. After graduating from New York's School of Visual Arts, he joined Lintas as an art director and quickly won a Gold Clio for a Friskies Buffet commercial that depicted costumed parrots sneaking unnoticed past felines whose faces are buried in their food bowls. On top of his anti-smoking efforts at Arnold, which he joined in 1997 after the agency acquired Houston Effler, he's also headed up creative for Royal Caribbean and Monster.com. For Royal, the agency turned soporific cruise advertising on its head by making the ship a side note and featuring images of young, sporty-types romping in the sand and water - to the musical backdrop of Iggy Pop's "Lust for Life." On Monster.com, Favat oversaw spots like the hilariously poetic "Clam Man," and most recently, the client's Super Bowl and Winter Olympics executions, like "Fit Guy," which bitingly plays off the hysteria of international competition to show that once it's all over, all that's left is a super-fit person who needs a job.
The future of the anti-tobacco work may be in doubt, now that Lorillard is suing the American Legacy Foundation over alleged violations of Big Tobacco's legal agreement with 46 states, but Favat marches on, heading to Alberta at press time for another "Truth" shoot. He's also mulling over another documentary on the relationship between women and the tobacco industry, even as he admits he has his hands full balancing his professional responsibilities with being a family man. Not that he 's complaining. "I'm raising my two kids [from a previous marriage], and I just got married to Amy," he says. In addition, "if I can do my documentaries and I can direct spots every now and then, I'm happy."