After weeks and months of brain searing, marriage wrecking work, our best and brightest ideas are often killed before the public ever gets a chance to bask in their brilliance. Why does it happen? Why does good work die before its time? To solve this eternal riddle, we look to the noble loggerhead turtle, and some of the best creative minds in the business, for answers.
The loggerhead turtle, so called for its unusually large head, takes about 20 years to become reproductively mature, about the same amount of time it takes for a baby creative to produce his first work. The lucky ones mate about once a year, usually at night, though how it's actually accomplished remains unclear. And every summer, as the sun sets on the hot white beaches of the Southeastern coast, thousands of loggerheads lumber and scratch their way onto the sand to lay eggs. After patiently depositing her precious cargo (more that 100 eggs in all), the female loggerhead carefully covers them with warm, wet sand and returns to the sea, leaving them to their fate.
Many will never hatch, devoured by nighttime marauders or crushed by unthinking passersby with little regard for the miracle taking place beneath their feet. Others will be plucked just inches from freedom by sharp beaked predators looking for an easy meal. And even for those tiny few that make it to water, the chances remain grim. Only one in a thousand will survive.
"There are a billion different reasons why good work dies," according to Luke Sullivan, Chief Creative Officer of WestWayne. "That's like asking the guy at the front desk of the hospital, 'What do people die of most here?' Bad toe infections, brain tumors, cancer, overdoses, car accidents, every possible injury you can imagine kills ads." Sullivan, one of the most awarded and respected writers in advertising, devoted an entire chapter of his book, "Hey Whipple, Squeeze This," to good work that died before its time. But Sullivan is quick to point out that clients kill good work for good reasons, as well as bad. The best, and most difficult to argue against, is that the creative is "good," but off strategy.
Most creatives understand the concept of death by missed strategy. It's the other, more subjective, causes of creative death that are so hard to explain and accept. Fear, for example. It can abort the creative process just when it starts to get interesting. "Most of the time, good work gets killed because it's just too scary," says BA Albert, Principal and Creative Director of MATCH, Inc. "Especially these days, people have to have guts to go out on a limb creatively, because they don't know when that limb will be cut off."
Bad economic times can also be bad news for good creative. Terry Sagedy, now a Vice President at Point B, was forced to close his own shop, Ivory Communications, shortly after the dotcom bubble burst in 2000. "In the last 18 months, since the unraveling began, directors of marketing are looking at things differently. They might not be able to afford the better creative because of costs. Or they may not be willing to risk their job to say, 'This is the way to go,' when they can take the safe, inexpensive route and look like a hero."
Poisonous politics is another ugly fact of nature in advertising. Understanding how that poison works to kill a good ad can be more challenging than creating it the first place. Bill Pauls, Executive Creative Director at BBDO Atlanta, is a veteran who has plenty of war stories to tell. "On at least two occasions, we've done advertising for the government that they said was, 'just too good,'" he says. "Basically, they asked us to dumb it down a little, to take the edge off. They were more concerned about being noticed than about not being noticed."
As absurd as it sounds, having your work killed because it's "too creative" is not that unusual. As an entry level copywriter working in Atlanta, Jennifer LeMay, renowned for her live-demo Cheer detergent commercials created at Leo Burnett, wrote an ad touting an upcoming bank "merger". The ad was supposed to put a positive spin on the takeover. LeMay's headline read: "We're Not Ashamed to Admit We're Marrying for Money." She's kept the client service report from that presentation for nearly 20 years. It reads: "The Client rejects the concept, as it too accurately reflects the actual situation."
What is a creative to say when confronted with that kind of mind boggling logic? Sometimes, you can't say anything, literally. After 68 meetings over a TV spot that was not really worth airing after the client's input, Luke Sullivan and his ill fated storyboard reached the top floor of a company where he was finally given approval by the CEO. It had taken nearly a year, but the nightmare was over. Almost.
The following day, Sullivan was forced to pitch the board one more time, deep in the bowels of an anonymous office park somewhere beyond Atlanta's Perimeter. There, a middle aged woman wearing thick, horn rimmed glasses, pulled a little green rubber frog from her purse, raised its hands up to its ears as if to protect them, and said: "Mr. Froggy doesn't like what he's hearing." Sullivan, momentarily dumbstruck, claims to have blacked out. He also swears he has witnesses.
Strategic gaffs. Fear. Politics. Cost-cutting. Bad taste. And occa sionally, outright insanity. With so many reasons from which to choose, it's nearly impossible to say why good work gets killed. It might be smarter to ask why the few great ads that do survive make it all. The simple answer may be that, unlike the endangered loggerhead, creative people never leave their best ideas buried in the sand. They fight for them.
BBDO/ANTI-SMOKING (top right picture)
Often, an agency's best work goes unseen because the agency loses in the final pitch. This campaign, created at BBDO Atlanta by Kyle Lewis and Jeff Nixon for the Georgia Anti-Smoking pitch, was delivered a mortal blow when the account went to Austin Kelley Advertising. But Executive Creative Director Bill Pauls refused to let it die. They found another anti-smoking group who agreed to run the work. Ironically, the group is headed by a member of the R.J. Reynolds family.
HELLO CREATIVE/RAINBOWVOICE.COM (upper right)
The right economic conditions are just as vital to the survival of good creative as a bankable check. This campaign, created by Kevin McKelvey and Michael Howell under their Hello Creative banner, was produced for an upstart ISP called Rainbowvoice.com, which catered to the gay and lesbian community. In lieu of cash, the creative team gleefully accepted stock options as payment. Those options died alongside the campaign in the implosion of the dotcom bubble.
MATCH/EDWARDS SPOT (right)
Good timing is everything, especially with work that is already pushing the client's envelope. MATCH created this spot for Edwards Frozen Pies. The client loved it and gave it the green light. The director was lined up, the cruise ship was rented and tickets were booked to Los Angeles. It was the first week of September 2001. Unfortunately, after September 11, body bags were no longer very funny. The spot remains just a storyboard.
The spot opens on stock footage of a cruise ship in the middle of the ocean. We dissolve and we’re inside the cruise ship (below deck). We’re watching two uniformed crew members struggle to carry a giant duffel bag into the ship’s freezer.
CREW #1: (Strained) So… do we just leave him in here?
CREW #2: We're three days out at sea, what do you think we’re gonna do with him?
CREW#1: (Shakes his head) What a way to go.
They set down the bag and leave, slamming the big freezer door behind them. Suddenly we hear laughter from the duffel bag. It starts to unzip and a man emerges (Tom Arnold type) he looks around and spies hundreds of Edwards Frozen Desserts in every flavor.
Cut to shot of product packages:
ANNCR: When it comes to unique flavors, there's Edwards and there's everything else.
WESTWAYNE/THE ONION (below)
The Onion, an underground parody newspaper published in Madison, Wisconsin, has developed a cult following with its pitch-black humor and totally politically incorrect headlines like this one: "New York to Install Special 'Infants Only' Dumpsters." One of its biggest fans (short for fanatics) is WestWayne’s Executive Creative Officer, Luke Sullivan. Sullivan noticed that as funny as the paper’s headlines were, their house advertising was less than inspired. His team created dozens of ads, perfectly sized (with coupon) and ready for publication. He sent them bound in leather to The Onion. After a year of trying, Sullivan has yet to get them produced. Apparently, The Onion has a moat mentality when it comes to creative: they keep it inside. Sullivan says he'll start calling again in about six months.
Eleven years ago, five scantily clad women rode into the American consciousness and became lightning rods for political correctness. I am proud to say I had a hand in creating these controversial icons of advertising; the famous, the infamous Old Milwaukee Beer Swedish Bikini Team.
What began as a joke ended as a joke. The SBT died in peace, replaced by another campaign. I regret we never got the chance to properly bury these vixens of beerdom. This is the story of what could have been.
In 1991, I was a creative director at Hal Riney & Partners/ San Francisco working on the Old Milwaukee account. The clients said they wanted a new campaign that would appeal to young, 21-plus beer drinkers. They were open to fresh ideas for changing their long running campaign as long as we kept the equities of said campaign. The equities were:
l. Appeal to blue collar men
2. Feature outdoor activities
3. Maintain high energy
4. Keep the slogan “It doesn’t get any better than this...”
5. Be fun
Exhaustive research was conducted. It indicated young men like women, rock ‘n roll, and partying/drinking beer. Where would we be without research?
The premise of the Swedish Bikini Team campaign was to pick up the action where the previous Old Milwaukee spots ended: a gathering of guys toasting the moment, saying, “It doesn’t get any better than this...” Then we’d show how it did, indeed, get better.
It got better with the tried and true trappings one found in any dumb beer commercial at that time: with the addition of rock ‘n roll, sexy women who have an aversion to fabric, food, and fun, fun, fun.
Your basic youth fantasy.
The campaign was a spoof of all beer advertising, even Old Milwaukee’s. The Swedish Bikini Team was a three word joke. A Monty Pythonesque notion: five women who have no reason for being except to magically appear in beer spots. They were a send-up of beer commercial babes, except rather than lie on a beach and have a camera travel their skin, our women were action fantasy figures attracted to guys in flannel. They were a running joke, the only constant in the campaign.
The campaign was a hit from the start. It was written up in TV Guide as “this year’s Energizer Bunny.” The phrase ‘Swedish Bikini Team’ was used by Leno and Letterman in monologues, and the team appeared on “Married With Children,” twice. And wonder of wonders, the women who played team members agreed to do a pictorial for “Playboy,” appearing sans their official uniforms. Imagine seeing a figment of your imagination on the cover of “Playboy”. It was surreal.
But fame soon turned to infamy. The Stroh Brewing Company was hit with a sexual harassment suit. A feminist lawyer made the case that the SBT advertising promoted an “atmosphere that encouraged sexual harassment.” It was the year of the Kennedy rape trial and the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas Senate hearings. The media had a sexy new story to turn its spotlights on.
Soon the SBT represented the politically incorrect evil that lurks in our loins. Maury Povich and other talk show pundits jumped on the moral high road bandwagon against the SBT. Other brewers found religion and vowed not to use sex to sell beer. In new spots, men would ogle beautiful women wearing slinky dresses that rode high on the thigh: no sexist swimwear! In the thick of the controversy, I even got a call from a woman in Michigan who was upset because the Bikini Team members were from Sweden. “What’s wrong with American women?” she asked. “I’m sick and tired of always seeing blue eyed blondes. There’s plenty of beautiful women in this country!”
The client was concerned. While it was great to have buzz, it was awful to have notoriety. However, my partner, Marcus Kemp, and I proposed a final spot to make lemonade out of the lemons we had been pelted with. The idea was to do one last spot that would properly bury the Swedish Bikini Team and at the same time fan the flames of publicity: a :60 opus to run during the Super Bowl.
The spot would open on a scene of guys gathered around a campfire by a stream. One of the men raises his can of Old Milwaukee and says, “Guys, it doesn’t get any better than this.” Next, an announcer voiceover speaks: “Matt Ryan was wrong. Because when a large trout joined them for dinner, it got somewhat better.”
At that point, a trout jumps from stream into the frying pan. The announcer continues: “And, when the Swedish Bikini Team bungee corded into camp...” The men look up into the sky, but nothing happens. The off-camera voice of the director shouts, “Take two!”
The announcer clears his throat and repeats: “And, when the Swedish Bikini Team bungee corded into camp...”Nothing. Next, the camera angle changes to reveal all the people involved in the commercial shoot: nervous production assistants, the cameraman, boom mike guy and the director who bursts onto the scene and shouts, “Cut! All right, where’s the Swedish Bikini Team...”
A frightened production assistant comes forward holding bikinis and blonde wigs. He shyly says, “I dunno. But I found these....” The director takes the bikinis and wigs and shouts, “They’ll never work in this town again!” His anger quickly melts to depressed concern. He sits on a large rock and slowly shakes his head and says, “I can’t believe it. I’m ruined!” Cut to a wide shot as the crew begins striking the campfire scene. The announcer speaks, “And so, the Swedish Bikini Team, America’s favorite import, was never heard from again.” Cut to a scene of a frozen tundra at dusk. A super reads Somewhere in Sweden. The camera begins rolling across the tundra toward a cabin far off in the horizon. As the camera gets closer and closer to the cabin, rock music, the SBT anthem, plays louder and louder. The announcer says, “Although legend has it on cold nights out on the Swedish tundra, you can still hear the call of the wild.” The camera continues zooming into a close up of a window. The shade is drawn, but there is a silhouette of the SBT dancing. The spot ends with an Old Milwaukee logo and the words, “It doesn’t get any better than this.”
It would have been big. We even envisioned a mini campaign rolling out a promotion themed “Whatever happened to the Swedish Bikini Team?”
Alas, none of it came to pass. The client was nervous and didn’t want to fan the flames. Instead, a new campaign was rolled out and the Swedish Bikini Team joined Mr. Whipple and Josephine the Plumber in the unemployment line for advertising icons. Boo hoo.
A couple years back, “AdAge” ran a survey on the most popular beer campaigns in history. The Swedish Bikini Team came in second, behind the “Jocks” campaign for Miller Lite in the 70’s and 80’s. The Jocks campaign ran for ten years. The SBT ran for seven months.
I suspect the campaign will eventually be immortalized as an answer in Trivial Pursuit. And for advertising, I reckon it doesn’t get any better than that.