Natty washroom attendant is 'so wrong' for Big Red gum

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MARKETER: Wm. Wrigley Jr. Co.
RATING: One and a half stars

Everybody has a fantasy. Ours is of the Doublemint twins being arrested in a Chicago crack house, sexually entangled in a pool of their own filth.

Actually, the full-blown fantasy involves an unregistered gun, a 55-gallon drum of Miracle Whip and Rick and Darva's honeymoon video. But that's just being greedy. All we ask is a bit of revenge for the sappy, horrifically wholesome, smilier-than-thou Wrigley imagery we've endured for decades.

Wrigley ads have always been dreadful and embarrassing--but, to paraphrase Tolstoy, they've been dreadful in their own particular way, by being gigantically out of sync with the pop culture they seek, pitifully, to reflect.

When they are sweet 'n' bouncy, they are 30-second ipecac. When they try to be edgy, they are like Dad, the actuary, greeting his kid's friends, wearing a Fubu jersey and Dr. Martens, singing the best of Metallica.

A humiliating spectacle, in other words.

It's not hard to see why the new generation of Wrigley management wants to contemporize its image, minus the ridiculousness.

One path might have been to take the sappy jingles, with all their accrued equity, and have fun at their own expense. For instance, the people at Mentos by now know their ads are lame--but their very lameness is their appeal.

The other path is to concentrate not on style equity but on strategic equity, and to find a way to communicate brand attributes in a hipper, non-jingly, more relevant way.

The latter is what BBDO, Chicago, in a textbook method of extrapolating creative from the brief, set out to do for Big Red cinnamon gum.

1) Confirm the core user: single, social twentysomethings perpetually looking to either find love and companionship or, at least, score.

2) Position the gum not as a treat but as an accessory to carry at all times, like lipstick, condoms, fake ID, etc.

3) Contrive a setting favored by the target group, in this case: the club scene.

4) Create an icon who can speak with experience and authority on the impact of fresh breath in getting someone to trade saliva with.

From this perfectly rational process sprang one of the more unlikely advertising characters of the age: a semisupernatural washroom attendant (!) who materializes in the club lounge to tell you your breath stinks.

Oh, and he's black.

It's Barry White meets Mrs. Olson meets "Wings of Desire." He's a gum-dispensing love guru in an Armani suit, the coolest, hippest, wisest, most romantically experienced total loser in advertising history.

And you wonder, hmmm. He's smart, articulate, smooth, charming, wise. What's he doing minding the Barbicide and harvesting tips from an ashtray? Did he just get out of prison or what?

The four spots themselves are fairly benign. One washroom visitor is a geeky, would-be hipster trying to primp for re-entry to the dance floor. One is a lady-killing dude ("Mama hide your chicks; there's a wolf in the yaaaaard!") whose sour breath is cramping his style. A third is a brainy girl who can't hook up with the guys. The last is a feminist who expresses contempt for artificial constructs of attractiveness until a cute guy says hello.

But now, faced with a black spokes-sage doing the most menial work, everything else seems--in the words of our own 18-year-old--"so wrong I just can't stand it."

The feminist's spontaneous abandonment of principle and the egghead's stereotypical dowdiness suddenly seem sexist. The young wolf comes off as a sexual predator. And the goofy guy looks not just clueless but cluelessly white. The point is it's suddenly easy to read things into the situations that the creatives didn't intend to be there.

What seemed logical and rational on paper looks very strange--and even disturbing--on TV.

We're not usually in the business of prescribing, but what this campaign desperately needs is to get Mr. Smooth out of the washroom and into social situations, with the characters expressing an ironic surprise to see him there.

The message will still come through. The uncomfortable weirdness will disappear and, just in the nick of time, Wrigley will be dragged, kicking and screaming, into the 20th century.

Copyright March 2000, Crain Communications Inc.

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