The latest advertising campaign from Legal Sea Foods embraces an inside joke at the restaurant company, a standard response to dumb things people say and do.
The punchline: People making foolish choices aren’t eating enough fish. The new Legal ads take that idea and run with it, playing up the virtue of fish as “brain food.”
A series of television ads will debut Friday, featuring YouTube videos of real-life acts best described as, well, stupid. There are no actors, simply people who went on the Internet to post their ill-advised choices — licking an icy pole or driving into a garage door — and then gave one of New England’s most popular restaurants permission to broadcast them in prime time. “Fish is brain food,” the spots declare. “We have fish.”
Print ads, following the same “brain food” theme, debuted in June publications.
The new campaign is not as controversial as the typical marketing style of the Boston company that operates 32 restaurants. Just a few years ago, Legal ads on MBTA trains featuring a fish making fresh comments — “this conductor has a face like a halibut” and “bite me” — were deemed offensive by operators. Some of the ads were pulled.
Even the company’s very first advertising campaign, featuring “I got scrod last night at Legal Sea Foods” T-shirts, was considered risque by conventional restaurant marketing standards in the early 1970s.
The new brain food advertisements, which will eventually call for fans to submit their own brainless actions, specifically target a younger, social-media-active age group. But they will stay true to Legal chief executive Roger Berkowitz’s objective with every campaign.
“We like the tongue and cheek, the double entendre if you will,” he said on a recent Friday afternoon in his office as sunlight beamed through large windows overlooking the harbor. “The idea is at most to tweak and to have fun. Not to offend, but to create a moment where people say, ‘Did I hear that?’ or ‘Did I really see that?’ To catch someone’s attention.”
Achievement in advertising is measured by awards, and Devito/Verdi of New York has nabbed many top honors — CLIO and ADDY, One Show, and Cannes Lions — for their Legal Sea Foods work.
Nailing the chief executive’s vision hasn’t been easy, firm owner Ellis Verdi said.
For the latest campaign, the advertising firm’s creative department was divided into 12 teams to vie for the best concept. Ideas were massaged or eliminated until brain food emerged as a clear leader about three months later. Then, the print and television ads were adjusted for another three months before the campaign was completed. In all, the agency viewed hundreds of YouTube videos.
Devito/Verdi also had to keep budgets in mind. Berkowitz, by his own admission, is cheap. Air time is expensive, so he wants all Legal commercials to last 15 seconds and use existing footage to eliminate production budgets.
“When you have to create low-cost, short-length commercials that say something and absolutely get someone’s attention and you can’t do something that isn’t smart, you’re quite challenged,” Verdi said.
The new Legal campaign may appeal to a younger generation, but some analysts question whether the company’s attention-seeking advertising style might turn away an older crowd of customers.
“We haven’t seen a lot of upscale restaurants doing this because typically a restaurant of this scale is going to target an older consumer,” said Darren Tristano, executive vice president of the Chicago food industry research firm. “These types of ads are going to be more effective with millennial and generation X age groups.”
Older consumers are looking for quality food and experiences. Advertisements that shock and poke fun at people might cause them to question whether the brand is for them, Tristano said.
Not a typical baby boomer, Berkowitz loves “South Park” and says his own generation has driven society to become “way too politically correct.” He believes the balance between funny and offensive is delicate.
On the other hand, he enjoys stirring the pot to get people talking.
“As long as when you advertise you aren’t mean spirited or defamatory with what you’re trying to do, then why not have fun with it?” he said. “One of the greatest things to me is that whether you like the ads or not, people can repeat them verbatim.”