No one working in the marketing department at Amazon today was at the company in 1999 when it launched the now cult-classic “Sweatermen” holiday campaign—with its crew of jolly guys, clad in sweaters and scarves, singing about the e-tailer in the cheery style of 1960s variety shows hosted by Mitch Miller and Lawrence Welk.
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As many people have done in the years since, Amazon’s marketers discovered the old campaign, by FCB San Francisco, on YouTube.
“It’s become a YouTube relic, with several people asking for it to come back over the years,” Jo Shoesmith, Amazon’s global chief creative officer, told Ad Age this week. “A few members of our team stumbled upon the videos and felt that bringing it back in the same out-of-time, ’60s-variety-show form could be pretty disruptive on social.”
So, Amazon did just that. The 2023 version of the campaign, made in-house, launched with videos in social media on Black Friday and Cyber Monday. The campaign has been modernized—it features women along with men this time, and products such as ring lights, gaming consoles and VR goggles, not just books, toys and DVDs—but the spirit of the original is alive and well.
The Black Friday spot has festive folks in matching tan sweaters riding on an absurdly long sled and showing off product after product.
The Cyber Monday spot, meanwhile, shows a group of office workers encouraging viewers to shop that day’s deals at work—hopefully without getting caught by the boss. (There’s also a cameo from a over-ripe talking sandwich.)
The spots were directed by Jonathan Krisel at Caviar, with music and lyrics by Mophonics in collaboration with the Amazon creatives.
“Everyone was constantly iterating and trying to beat what was on the table,” Shoesmith said of the songwriting. “Once we locked our final songs, everyone took another pass at beating jokes, improving rhyme schemes and exploring all the ways to make things a bit funnier and more memorable.”
At launch, the Cyber Monday ad got a particular boost among Gen Z by appearing as a “top view” ad on TikTok, which is the spot users see when they open the app.
“We wanted to max out the time limit—60 seconds—with a song that rewarded people the longer they stayed with us by escalating the humor,” Shoesmith said. “We thought it’d be fun to call out the elephant in the conference room that everyone shops at work on Cyber Monday. Instead of shunning that, we celebrated it.”
Similar creative, new context
In some ways it’s surprising that Amazon, so vastly different today than it was 24 years ago, would want to revive this old creative idea—or that the idea would still work, given how consumer tastes and reference points have changed.
But while the overall goal remains largely the same—to stand out during the competitive holiday season—the consumer strategies underlying the two campaigns are actually quite different.
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Amazon was only five years old in 1999, just beginning to become a force in the market. That year’s campaign, which would return in 2000 for an encore, was explicitly designed to make boomers and Gen Xers feel more comfortable shopping online. While the spots were funny and cheesy, they were also meant to be sincere and unironic—not poking fun at the ’60s shows so much as drafting off that audience’s familiarity with them.
“Amazon was still a foreign object to many—techy, scary,” said Tom O’Keefe, a creative director on the campaign at FCB, who is now CEO of Chicago agency OKRP. “We felt like attaching Amazon to a comfortable, familiar world would help soften that perception. So, we went into the 1960s holiday world of Mitch Miller, Andy Williams—stuff that baby boomers and Gen Xers had grown up with.”
The new work, by contrast, is very ironic, with the kind of random humor that millennials and Gen Z (few of whom have surely ever heard of Mitch Miller) are drawn to on Instagram and TikTok. This irony is evident in the oddball creative touches that break from the source material—the talking sandwich, for example, or referring to the sled as a metaphor, which wouldn’t have happened in the prior campaign.
Shoesmith said the creative actually works on a few levels—yes, it’s random humor, she said, but it’s also traditional in some ways, like its focus on festive music.
“When you think about the lo-fi content and weird humor that’s popular on today’s sound-on, music-driven channels, it felt like an oddly appropriate fit to stand out in a feed by looking and sounding different while actually integrating a lot of social best practices,” she said. “There’s no holiday tradition stronger than holiday music. So we figured, why not bring back a tradition of our own?”
The campaign also leans into another hallowed holiday tradition—nostalgia. Though in this case, it’s a kind of double-nostalgia—longing for a time three decades ago when people were longing for a time three decades before that.
“This is actually a nostalgic return to what was originally a nostalgic play, and conceived as such,” said O’Keefe. “Here it is back twenty-something years later—nostalgia-on-nostalgia.”
One thing Amazon isn’t nostalgic about is being that challenger brand of yore, even if this new work channels some of that underdog spirit. For Shoesmith, though, it’s less about choosing a tone based on market position and more about exploring the range of voices Amazon can employ—from fun, goofy social ads like this to more elegant, inspirational TV spots like “Joy Ride,” which also broke this holiday.
“We know we’re no longer a challenger brand, but we don’t think that’s a reason to lose our sense of humor or take ourselves too seriously—especially if we can entertain and delight our customers in unexpected ways,” she said. “And if we give our customers a laugh, we’re happy to make fun of ourselves a bit.”
We likely haven’t seen the last of the campaign and its merry pranksters, either. “This choir is becoming our holiday tradition,” Shoesmith said. “We feel like there’s more songs for them to sing.”