Marketing, August 19, 1996
Hey, meat lovers! Got your attention? What? You’re offended? Just because I implied you’re insatiable sexual predators, or possibly that you’re rapacious carnivores and little better than dumb beasts? Sorry. Let’s try this again . . .
Hey, pocket lovers! (That’s better. It makes no sense, but it’s not as offensive.) Both means of getting your attention come from recent TV spots for McCain Foods.
So, carnivorous pocket-lovers, what’s wrong with this phrase: “The taste to set you on your jets”? Yeah, whenever I think about a dough pouch full of pulped pizza topping, I yearn to perch on a jet; Boeing, McDonnell-Douglas, General Dynamics — it doesn’t matter. I can’t always get to an airport, though, so sometimes I think about sitting on a gas stove. Either way, one bite and I’m set on jets of some kind.
Want a chaser for that McCain Pizza Pocket? Their iced tea, supposedly, “refreshes down to a T.” No, I can’t explain what the preposition “down to” is doing in that sentence. How about some of this fruit-flavored beverage concentrate? This is what figure skater Elvis Stojko drinks when he, uh, “goes for the big one,” whatever that means.
What point am I missing? Why do all these slogans sound as though they were translated from another language by a copywriter with no grasp of idiomatic English? Is the bad writing part of a deliberate annoyance factor, meant to drill the product into our collective subconscious by setting our teeth on edge?
There’s nothing hip about pre-Revolutionary France, which ought to make things easier, but McCain fumbles that, too: “When Marie Antoinette said, ‘Let them eat cake,’ did she mean McCain Deep ’N’ Delicious freezable dessert extrusion?”
She said that when told the people of France were starving and crying for bread. The French people were so grateful for Ms. Antoinette’s dietary advice that they guillotined her. How does this make us want to eat chilly chocolate sludge? The spot raises other questions: the likelihood of any kind of refrigeration in late 18th-century France, for one. Maybe this the first in a series of commercials for McCain Deep ’N’ Delicious desserts featuring callous, irresponsible rulers. Next up, Baby Doc Duvalier fleeing Port-au-Prince with a frozen chocolate pie. After that, Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos scarfing slabs of Deep ‘N’ Etcetera while scrambling to Hawaii: “When things got hot in the Philippines, did the dessert stay cool . . . and deep, and delicious?”
There are a couple of possible explanations for the cheap lameness pervading every McCain commercial. The client’s decision is the only one that counts; maybe their agency wizards have trotted innumerable chunks of advertising greatness before McCain’s arbiters, only to have each one shot down because it wasn’t sufficiently ham-handed. “Sorry, people. If it isn’t as subtle as a flying mallet, we don’t think it’ll work.”
McCain is poised tantalizingly on the verge of a weird kind of greatness, though. Think, for a moment, of the momentous Mentos. The Van Melle company’s mints are diamond-hard on the outside, gooey in a deeply unsettling way on the inside, and barely edible. Yet the relentlessly dorky “Freshmaker” campaign doubled North American sales of the candies between 1991 and 1994.
Like the McCain efforts, the spots were lame, cheap and clumsy. But those inexcusable Mentos ads generated their own profound cachet. They were so bad, consumers fixated on them, making them the nonpareil of groovitude. Want proof of Mentos’ hipster bona fides? Page 125 of Douglas Coupland’s novel Microserfs: “We all made fun of the commercial for Mentos mints, saying ‘Mentos’ all night in a goofy European accent. ‘Mentos.’ It’s so dumb.” This year, the Foo Fighters — ex-Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl’s band — did a video for their single “Big Me” that mashed the entire “Freshmaker” campaign into one slavish, shot-for-shot homage. Brand awareness and street cred like that are rare and precious things.
McCain, too, could be reaping such enviable “mind share.” A little tweakage is all that’s required; not more creativity — less. Don’t aim to be hip — work aggressively not to be. Bring back the stiff pitchman in a gray suit in front of a poorly lit cyclorama, intoning some plodding, somber copy extolling the nutritional benefits and convenience of McCain comestibles. Or dig up some 15-year-old spots and run them exactly as they first aired. Don’t fix the fractured grammar in meaningless, baffling slogans like “set you on your jets,” or “down to a T.” Instead, make it just a little bit “wronger.” Translate the slogans into Japanese, Turkish, Urdu, and Serbo-Croatian successively, then back into English: “Pizza Pocket consumption will be most assuredly pinioning your family firmly atop your propulsion unit with abundant joy and happy luck, pretty bicycle.”
If that doesn’t make McCain’s the hippest brand in history, I’ll eat a Pizza Pocket.