"Cutting down trees?" the child replied.
"Yes!" Mrs. Review said. "Logging. Anything else?"
"Very good! Hunting and trapping animals for food and fur. Right. What else, do you suppose?"
"Ummmm," our 8-year-old ventured, "ventriloquism?"
Kids. They say the darnedest things. This is because children are cute-demonstrably, fundamentally adorable. So why, why, why, whenever they show up in TV commercials, are they always so damn obnoxious? The main reason, of course, is because they are being given stupid lines to recite and kids-even cute kids-can't act. Then the overcompensation starts, the dressing them up in grown-up clothes, the backwards lettering on the lemonade signs and, God help us, the Hal Roach "Our Gang" Hyperenunciation Method, directing them to speak so slowly and distinctly that in comparison, Spanky and Alfalfa seem like the guy in the old Federal Express ads.
Maybe the ultimate example came 30 years ago, in a spot so monumentally annoying it is remembered, with a shudder, still today.
"It's Shake 'n Bake," the little Southern girl drawled, "and Iiihhh hellllped!"
Whereupon even the most tenderhearted adult viewers concluded, "Spare the instruments of torture, spoil the child."
How fitting it is, then, that three decades later Shake 'n Bake has expiated its sins by giving us two spots featuring charming and extremely adorable children.
"The chicken doesn't come in the box," a little boy named Isaac soberly explains in one spot. "The crunchies are the Shake 'n Bake. You shake it, and [here he looks at the back of the box to see what you do next] . . . put it in the oven, and you got it!"
And so forth. A bloodless transcription of these spots from Ogilvy & Mather, Chicago, does no justice to the advertising itself, which perfectly captures the kids' native, precocious cuteness. You'd have to see how serious yet animated the little girl named Taylor is in the other spot, as she rolls the bag up and starts shaking the chicken leg within. She has the priceless dead earnest of a child given the job of explaining something complex to an interested adult.
Credit mainly the genius of director Bob Ebel. As we have seen in his O&M spots for Sears the past few years, there is no need for the backwards-printed "s" or the oversize clothing whatsoever. The secret is a combination of canny casting, directorial patience and the understanding that a kid improvising is exponentially more delightful than a kid regurgitating dialogue.
There are exceptions of course ("Hey, Mikey!"), but by and large there is nothing more tiresome and, well, juvenile.
Indeed, the Shake 'n Bake campaign is especially welcome-and also especially effective-because of the "I helped" ad it must live down. By using kids, these ads immerse themselves in the very echoes of that well-remembered, if not well-regarded, piece of '60s lore. We are nostalgic, after all, even for the past we didn't like.
Take the staff's trip to New England; it was a pretty big bust. But just say the word "ventriloquism" to one of us. It always makes for positive Reviews.