Reaching consumers with commercial messages grows ever more difficult, but some Boston-area agencies are testing a surprising tactic: simplicity.
Some of the most memorable advertising produced by local ad gurus in 2012 avoided the convoluted outreach that has become so common when campaigns stretch from TV and print to social media and mobile devices. Whether the ad was trying to explain the choice for health care or a new gadget, the best commercials stuck to a basic tenet and didn’t wander far from it.
More marketers should consider adopting the aesthetic, suggested Lance Jensen, chief creative officer at Hill Holliday in Boston — particularly as giants like Google and Apple continue to seek ways to make their rather complex offerings sleek and easy to comprehend. With consumers grazing on information they get from Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram, ad work that has a “real simple, open, transparent human feel” seems right for the time, he added.
With all that in mind, the Globe sussed out this year’s hits and misses from local advertising agencies. Our picks:
HIT: THEME FROM BAYWATCH
What:David Hasselhoff surprises two beach-goers by quaffing their Farmhouse Blend iced coffee from Cumberland Farms, then inviting the bikini-clad female member of the duo to play a tune on a piano made of sand.
Agency: Full Contact Advertising
Why: As part of the campaign, nearly 600 life-size stand-up “pole signs” featuring Hasselhoff drinking the iced coffee were placed outside Cumberland Farms stores, said Marty Donohue, creative director at Full Contact in Boston. All were stolen, with the thieves often posting pictures of their purloined poster on social media. News outlets ate (or drank) the story up.
“The extra media dollars that we got in public relations and social relevance were off the charts, and the iced coffee sold like crazy because of it,” he said.
HIT: TABLET WARS
What: This year was one in which it was hard to speak plainly. Boston’s Mullen agency found itself with a truly unique challenge: explaining the appeal of Google’s Nexus 7 tablet.
Why: To do so, Mullen stripped away complicated tech terms or chatter about the device’s complex innards. One of its ads, which Boston ad executives readily mention when talking about this year’s ad work, focuses instead on how a child uses the gizmo to read about Curious George journeying to the stars; talk to a grandmother; and, ultimately, pretend to blast off into space.
“Google,” the little girl asks, “how far is Earth to the moon?”
No mention of Web-search technology necessary.
“If you wind up doing buzzy kinds of things for no real reason, I would say rarely do they work,” said Alex Leikikh, president of Mullen’s Boston office. They may get some digital “hits” but ultimately they “flame out.”
MISS: BAD SANTA
What: A fearsome Santa (complete with elf henchman) threatens a man named Billy in an unmarked car under a bridge after he appears to become delinquent on paying not-so-jolly St. Nick for Christmas gifts like a sewing machine and hard-to-find video games in this ad for Ocean State Job Lot.
Why: While the ad is sure to get attention — actor Frank Vincent, who has played mobsters in “The Sopranos” and “Goodfellas” is on hand as the frightening Santa — it’s not clear this sort of sentiment will put a smile on consumers’ faces during holiday time, which is the goal of the commercial.
Boston’s MMB president, Fred Bertino, acknowledged the ad could be seen as risky but noted the commercial is designed to make people aware of the retailer.
“There maybe some people who don’t get the joke,” he said, adding that “it has by and large been perceived well,” with outsize response on Facebook.
MISS: THROWING MUD AT LANDLUBBERS
What: In a series of ads for Carnival Cruise Lines, a couple compares the beautiful sun and surf they see from their cruise-ship deck to the horrible camping trip (replete with animal attacks and uncontrollable campfires) they took the year prior.
Agency: Arnold Worldwide
Why: It’s true, camping is often no picnic, but it’s not as if cruise-ship vacations are so stress-free, either (as anyone who has read a news story about this year’s accident involving the Italian cruise ship Costa Concordia can tell you).
A previous Arnold campaign showed two young boys marveling about how their mother “caught air” as strains of Todd Rundgren’s “Bang The Drum All Day” played in the background. The focus was on fun and relaxation itself rather than comparing a cruise to another type of excursion — an approach that seemed to state the case more plainly.
“We understand creative evaluations can be subjective,” said Arnold, which is based in Boston. “We are proud of this campaign because it helped contribute to positive business results and had the highest likability scores of any Carnival campaign in years.”
HIT: BABY FACE
What: In an ad for Cigna set against a stark black backdrop, a blue-eyed baby girl gets to envision potential careers as a firefighter, equestrian, chef, fencer, beauty queen, and more.
Agency: Hill Holliday
Why: So many health care concerns show their customers in the midst of being sick, but Hill Holliday instead suggests that Cigna can help keep you well — and growing — in a clever spot that doesn’t get bogged down in traditional health care ad ideas, like showing people in hospital beds in black-and-white scenes.
As for getting the adult and baby to look alike, Hill Holliday’s Jensen said the agency “just cast the eyeballs.”
“The main woman had some really striking eyes, and we found a baby we thought did, too. The rest is just up to your imagination wanting it to make sense.”
MISS: AWARD-WINNING, BUT UNWATCHABLE
What: An employee of Planet Fitness attempts to guide a muscle-bound guest of indeterminate sex into the proper restroom, without much success.
Why: Would you believe that some ads aren’t meant for mass consumption? Mullen, which has parted ways with Planet Fitness, devised this ad solely as a means of getting the attention of awards juries, according to the agency.
In fact, this odd commercial won an award at the Cannes advertising festival.
The ad never appeared on TV and was viewable only via a private site on YouTube. Perhaps that was for the best: The ad says very little about the workout you might get at Planet Fitness and maybe too much about the people you might find yourself next to on the treadmill.
Mullen’s best-known work for the gym chain was the “I lift things up and put them down” ad that ran last year, featuring a bodybuilder doing a so-bad-it’s-good imitation of Arnold Schwarzenegger.Brian Steinberg is the television editor at Advertising Age. He can be reached at
firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @bristei.