Creativity first took notice of the Reactor jeans campaign in a What the Hell is Going On Here? contest about a year ago, when we featured an ad that had a somewhat androgynous figure inexplicably posing with a giant hamster. At that time we erroneously attributed the campaign to in-house creative, but in fact it's belonged from the very beginning to Philadelphia's Gyro Advertising. We should have known, it's got that renegade Gyro stamp all over it. In fact, it's so renegade, many a creative would probably like to stamp all over it. Going on two years old, the Reactor campaign has metastasized into a wicked print parody series that's flirted more than once with litigious corporate monstrosities. These are not cute Energizer or Sprite-styled generic ad parodies that offer a chuckle of surprise. This is smirking Gen X anti-advertising that's really anti advertising.
Ricola, Bacardi, Miller, Captain Morgan, Massengill, Parliament, Newport, Dewar's -- the list of spoof victims goes on, painfully familiar alcohol and cigarette accounts to the fore. But Gyro itself handles Red Kamel. "No, we won't do a Red Kamel parody," says Gyro CD Steve Grasse. "We did want to do a Joe Camel parody, but we refrained. We're not complete idiots. I think the client would've laughed about it, but I wasn't willing to take the risk."
That's about the only risk he isn't willing to take. "You drive along the highway or open a magazine, there are ads that just annoy the hell out of you," explains Grasse. "You just hate them to death. But no one pokes fun at them, though they're such an obvious target. Everyone in advertising ignores the stuff that's really bad. But the bad stuff's actually good."
Good fodder. This is the Age of Appropriation, after all, but there may be a distinctly nonderivative edge to all this. "I think Reactor is an attempt on our part to be original, and to do that we said, 'Let's rip off everybody,' " Grasse reflects. "We'll make fun of everything, and not in a way that's goofy like a David LaChapelle photo. Our photography is perfectly terrible. It's about building brand personality."
No easy task in a crowded field mapped out and owned, in a sense, by Paradiset's work for Diesel. Grasse doesn't wanna be just another Diesel wannabe. "Look at the Izod campaign from Chiat/Day," he says. "It's like the worst thing I've ever seen in my life! You could say it's a very poor imitation of Diesel. And you could say ours is a godawful imitation of Diesel. Therefore, it succeeds in its own awfulness. It's the worst campaign in history. When it was reviewed in Creativity, the reviewer [BBDO West's David Lubars] said he wasn't quite sure where Reactor was coming from. We look at that as a compliment. We're not sure either. If you opened up the head of the target audience and looked at everything they think about and laugh about, this would be it."
Grasse may not take anything seriously, but you can bet his client does. Though Reactor, a unit of Seattle-based Shah Safari, won't release sales figures, marketing director Mike Mallin says the label, started just two years ago, is moving well at retail and has great distribution. Though denim is Reactor's core, there's a whole line of men's sportswear, and now a women's line has been added. How'd they hook up with Grasse? "One of our ex-employees knew of Gyro, and he introduced us to them." The ex is coincidental; Mallin is quite pleased with the twisted path of Gyro's work. "It's not like Diesel, though it's anti-fashion like Diesel. We never wanted to be the poor man's Diesel."
The pants themselves, however, may be just that. "Reactor's whole selling point," says Grasse, "which we don't make a point of, is they are the same quality as Diesel but they cost about $45, where Diesel is about $120. What the client originally said to us was, 'People like the idea of Diesel, but nobody can afford it.' I think Diesel is finding that out now."
Back in the pre-giant hamster days, though, the ads were different. "The original campaign was kind of serious, all about the future," notes Grasse. So when did the parodies start? "When we ran out of ideas. The plan was always that we wouldn't run an ad more than once anyway," so why not make them fairly actionable? "We have the feeling that the target audience gets bored pretty easily." The disposable ads run on a $2 million annual magazine budget, says Grasse, who credits art director Alison Childs with much of the creative thrust, which is aimed, of course, at males, mainly 18-24. "Guys who are stuck in puberty," he says. "It's different than Lee or Levi's in the attitude of the people who wear it. Everything's ironic." It's simply ironic, for instance, that all the ads say "Made in France." "That's a lie," says Grasse proudly. "It just says that because Alison's boyfriend is in a band with a French name."
And many recent ads say, "Jeans that love you back." Meaning? "The Philadelphia Department of Tourism recently bought the line, 'The city that loves you back.' It's an obscure reference that means nothing."
Found art, trash culture, it's all here. And free beer. Everyone at Gyro found it extremely ironic when the Miller spoof (the one that baffled Lubars) did not go unnoticed at Wieden & Kennedy. Grasse says that Reactor's butt jokes have gotten cease-and-desist letters from Philip Morris, Lorillard and Brown & Williamson. But the beer sneer -- headlined, "It's time to shut up and put your jeans back on" -- produced a 12-pack of Miller Genuine Draft, compliments of W&K. "I don't know if it's a compliment," says Mallin. "It's better than getting a letter from an attorney. I got a little concerned when I was told someone from Miller was in the lobby waiting for me."
As a rule, though, Reactor gets the cold shoulder from the creative community. Calls to several agencies, including W&K, Lintas and Leo Burnett, seeking comment on the campaign were not returned. Grasse says he gets no feedback from creatives, while Mallin says he gets plenty of approving e-mails from consumers. (The Gyro-produced but print parody-free Web site is at www.reactorplus.com.)
But what about that ad with the giant hamster, headlined, "Follow your natural instincts"? What does it parody? "It's not a parody of anything," Grasse insists. "I don't know what it is. The art director showed it to me, and I said, 'That looks pretty fucked up, go ahead and do it.' I don't understand that ad