Say cheese?

Trying to make sense of the Dairy Farmers’ dazed and confusing cheese campaign.

Marketing Magazine, July 1, 1996   

Now that the fuss over spec work and its attendant costs has died down with respect to the $16.8 million Dairy Farmers of Canada cheese account (landed after an extensive and expensive agency review last fall by Cossette Communication-Marketing’s Montreal office), perhaps somebody would be good enough to explain the resultant commercials. The central message in the spots seems to be that not eating cheese will make you a zombie, doomed to wander aimlessly for eternity. How else to explain the dazed and confused cheese junkie in these commercials?


You’ve seen the spots: they all feature the same the same catatonic, bug-eyed guy in an orange shirt and black vest wandering aimlessly through Vancouver, muttering the names of menu items in which cheese is the main ingredient in some kind of dairy-case mantra. As the kids say, “What’s up with that?”


The first commercial opens with the guy in his office, realizing there’s no cheese in his forlorn baloney sandwich. Who made the sandwich? Why no cheese? If Cheese Boy made the sandwich, why didn’t he put some cheese in it, since it would seem to be integral to his ability to function? If somebody else made the sandwich, presumably they left it free of cheese to torture Cheese Boy. Is the unseen cheese-withholder trying to drive Cheese Boy crazy? Realizing his lunch is cheese-deficient, the protagonist wanders out of the anonymous office building mumbling about cheese, a reverie abetted by everything he encounters. Initially, his instincts seem like they’re right on the money: he heads for an art gallery. The chow at art gallery openings is always the same: wine and cheese. Of course, Cheese Boy is there in the middle of the day, so there’s no opening in progress. That means there’s no cheese. His desire unfulfilled, Cheese Boy wanders elsewhere.


By this time, you figure, folks back at the office are wondering about Cheese Boy’s whereabouts. Are they used to this? Do these spells occur frequently enough that they’ve grown accustomed to them? If this behavior is normal, then why don’t they keep a bucket of whey or a package of singles on hand, so they can ply Cheese Boy with the requisite rennet rations whenever he gets that glazed, cheese-jonesing look?


Cheese Boy, meanwhile, has no free will. Lactose lust has led him miles from the office, where he is still shuffling along in a cheeseless stupor, probably alarming his fellow citizens. Does not getting enough cheese induce some kind of dairy-product deficiency dementia? This seems like a wretched Catch-22: you don’t get enough cheese, so you decide you have a hankering for it, by which point not eating cheese has made you too stupid to figure out where or how to get the cheese you need. Once the concept had been established with the first spot, it was subsequently beaten into the ground. More trudging, more bug-eyed catatonia, more cheese-chanting. The second spot at least offered a brief glimmer of hope; it looked, for a moment, as though Cheese Boy was about to be flattened by an oncoming truck.


Are these spots aiming for the kind of cliffhanger continuity that the Taster’s Choice instant-coffee couple has belabored? The mind reels at the prospect of Cheese Boy’s witless quest playing its thin, self-contradictory idea out over and over and over for years to come.


And why does Cheese Boy have a lisp? If you were casting a commercial with a script requiring the repetition of the word “cheese” every two-and-a-half seconds, would you hire a guy who said, “cheethe”? Maybe the talent doesn’t lisp; perhaps that “cheethe” pronunciation is somebody’s idea of “cute.” Or was there research showing that people with speech impediments were the target demo for boosting cheese consumption? Or maybe the market research showed that people prone to wandering while oblivious to their immediate surroundings weren’t eating enough cheese. If this idea won the account, what did the losers propose?


So we get “Cheese Goes Negative.” “Eat cheese...your sanity might just depend on it.” Did focus groups determine that this was a worthwhile strategy? Did a bunch of randomly selected folks hear this concept and say, “Yes, a dorky guy with a speech impediment wandering aimlessly and lisping the word ‘cheese’ is just the kind of thing that’d stimulate my urge to buy?” Or was that response from the cheese barons?


The cheese commercials are gone now. I hope they’re being retooled, or that the entire silly campaign is gone. I tried finding out by repeatedly telephoning Cossette in search of answers. But nobody in Toronto or Montreal wants to take responsibility for the campaign, and anybody I did speak to said the cheese commercials certainly weren’t their responsibility.  That response may be the only understandable aspect of this situation. Or maybe all those responsible were out of the office, wandering aimlessly and muttering “cheethe” over and over again.