Secret of Secret's success: 'to be continued' workhorse

By Published on .

Remember the Taster's Choice campaign?

Of course you do. There's no forgetting the coy, smirking relationship between the coquettish woman and her downstairs neighbor, who used insipid banter ostensibly about instant coffee as a freeze-dried flirtation dance. Some viewers rooted for romance. We rooted for an outbreak of non-life-threatening but painful and embarrassing sores.

The insufferable couple didn't put Starbucks out of business. It did, however, briefly capture America's attention. So it's surprising that few have attempted to exploit the natural intrigue of the "to be continued" genre. Turns out, the gimmick can work when not manufactured by clods.

The evidence: a new series of 30-second spots for Secret antiperspirant from Leo Burnett USA, Chicago, and master storyteller Joe Pytka.

Antiperspirant, as you know, is a chemical applied to the armpits to inhibit sweat and the associated stench-not an obvious linchpin for sustained drama. On the other hand, underarm perspiration is linked to emotional upset, suggesting any number of dramatic possibilities. This campaign engagingly explores some.

The central figures are Jack and Shirley, husband and wife facing life's little nerve-wracking moments-the kind of moments wherein, if your deodorant is gentle enough for a woman, but not strong enough for a man, you might stain your blouse and surround yourself in a cloud of putrid musk.

In the first spot, Shirley is a wreck about asking the boss for a raise. Between Jack's support and large quantities of eccrine-gland-inhibiting aluminum zirconium trichlorohydrex, she marches coolly to the office. When she returns, she announces she has quit to go back to art school. Now Jack, who has to make the nut for their gorgeous apartment on one salary, is sweating.

The plot thickens in the second spot when Shirley, played marvelously by Anne Stedman, sits in a figure-study class and encounters the nude model-her ex-boyfriend.

"Shirley?" he says.

"Teddy?!" she replies. Her nervous smile is perfection. And, oh, yes: to be continued.

In the third of the three initial spots, the figure class has miraculously yielded an exhibition of very good student oil paintings, featuring a Michelangelo-esque one by Shirley herself. The exhibition scene begins marvelously with a closeup of Jack, checking out her work, cocking his head quizzically from side to side as he focuses his attention pretty much on Teddy's ground zero. When he and Teddy meet, the plot thickens.

Shakespeare it ain't, but between the sitcom-ishness and Pytka impeccable timing, the story holds your attention. And unlike the Taster's Choice inanity, these vignettes are to the point. Though we are never bludgeoned with silly product talk, the downside of the endocrine system is never lost on the viewer.

At no point in the narrative is Shirley not under some sort of emotional stress, yet her sweat glands at least remain poised. Her life may be veering out of control, but her underarms apparently are fresh as a daisy.

The only glaring flaw is the absence of the Secret theme line: "Strong enough for a man," etc. It is one of the great USPs in advertising history, and it should be in there somewhere. Otherwise, the lesson is clear: Serialized advertising can be a powerful weapon, especially if you...

... arm Pytka.

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