That merry band of creatives at Cliff Freeman & Partners has come up with another monstrosity of an ad campaign -- the kind that makes you cringe and disclaim any and all involvement and knowledge of the advertising business, and that makes CEOs around the country question the value of their own ad budgets.
About a year ago, the same agency brought us those wild and wacky Outpost.com TV commercials featuring a pack of frenzied wolves attacking a high school marching band. The rationale: It wanted to establish the Outpost brand among young, hip computer software buyers, and the wilder the better to help navigate the sea of sameness out there in TV land.
This time the agency can't invoke the same excuse. The client, Budget Rent A Car, owns a well-recognized name that presumably appeals to a broad segment of the population. So here's how the Freeman folks decided to get across the diversity of Budget's fleet, its quick service and its rewards program, according to last week's edition of the world's greatest advertising journal.
The spot opens with Budget employees at a table throwing around ideas on how to promote a $19.99 special on Ford Rangers. One suggests allowing customers to become a "ranger for a day." As the crack Budget team mulls the idea, the camera cuts to a man -- the "ranger for a day"? -- feeding a bear cub, which then throws up all over him. The employees reject that idea and opt for just promoting the vehicle. Fade to the logo and Web site address.
Ravaging wolves. Vomiting bears. Shooting gerbils through the middle "O" of Outpost.com. These guys at Freeman have really figured out how to induce consumers to open their wallets.
Let me put this another way in case you haven't been catching my drift. How can commercials that even the client admits may not be everyone's cup of tea succeed when commercials starring a cute little chihuahua that everyone loves are not ringing the cash register?
The Wall Street Journal reported the other week that Taco Bell no longer will put the talking dog center stage. The food will now be star of the act. Taco Bell's 6,000 restaurants and $200 million ad budget sold millions of miniature toy dogs that bark "Yo quiero Taco Bell," but were not so good moving the burritos. "We're not in the business of selling toys. We're in the business of selling food," one franchisee told the Journal. Taco Bell's same-store sales were up a scant 2% in the first six months of this year.
When a dog is the focus of your ads (or crazed wolves or frozen explorers), strange things can happen. Have you seen the latest Taco Bell spot showing cops bursting through the door of some poor guy's house (a scary scene in this day and age) and demanding: "Sir, drop the chalupa and back away." Then the dog says to the cowering guy, "Yeh, drop the chalupa." That's a lot of angst to go through just to give the dog a halfway funny line.
The Outpost people at least have some excuse for falling prey to their stupid and ineffective advertising. After all, they're high-tech guys with what they think is a big idea and a small window of opportunity. So they take some of the IPO millions and pour it into advertising in a desperate bid to establish their brand before somebody comes along and makes them yesterday's dog food.
When their ad agency suggests the quickest way to build the brand is totally outrageous but memorable advertising, the Outpost executives can almost be forgiven for trying to grab the brass ring. If the ads don't work, so what? The Outpost guys will float another IPO and try some other dot-com venture. The agency gladly pockets the commission and notches another high profile (albeit short-lived) client on its belt.
But Budget's marketing people should know better. Their job is not to go for broke with advertising that risks alienating a good chunk of the customers they have painstakingly cultivated over the years. It's to propel their brand forward in a way that reinforces all the positive attributes of the rent-a-car operation built up, brick by brick, over the many years they've been in business. Their new campaign, however, could set back all their efforts for a long time to come.
I read that the Freeman agency has bought itself back from its Saatchi & Saatchi owners. Freeman employed a pretty clever strategy: Reduce the value of the