MALDEN — The Greatest Television Commercial Ever Made did not involve Clydesdales or polar bears or Michael Jordan. It did not sell Budweiser or Coca-Cola or Gatorade. And it did not emerge from the boardroom of some sleek Madison Avenue skyscraper.
No, the Greatest Television Commercial Ever Made is for SunSetter retractable awnings, sold by a little company up in Malden. What are SunSetter retractable awnings? Well, let’s let the commercial explain it:
“The sun used to make our outdoor deck and patio space so hot and uncomfortable, we couldn’t use it,” says a clean-cut suburban dad type in a blue polo shirt, his hands flailing weirdly in the sun. His wife joins in, looking like she was just unfrozen after being encased in ice in the late ’90s: “But then, we discovered the SunSetter retractable awning!”
And there they are, sitting happily together in the shade of a rollaway fabric tarp covering their patio, which has been made “about 20 degrees cooler.” Looks pretty nice.
Maybe you already know the commercial I’m talking about. Maybe you’ve seen it more than once. And maybe, if you’re addicted to the cable news channels on which it frequently airs, you hear the actor’s voice (“and protection from the sun’s harmful rays!”) on a never-ending loop somewhere deep in the shady recesses of your brain.
It has been airing nationally every spring and summer for 14 years. It has been seen many, many millions of times — a stunning 800 million times just since 2012, when the website iSpot.tv began tracking these things. And it’s actually been airing since 2005.
SunSetter and a succession of ad firms have spent the better part of a decade — and a considerable amount of money — trying to create a sleeker, more modern commercial that sells even more awnings. And they have failed. Every. Time.
But if you don’t already know the Greatest Television Commercial Ever Made, take two minutes and watch it. Go ahead. I’ll wait.
OK. Now, you might have a few questions about The Greatest Television Commercial Ever Made. Questions like, “What in the hell is that?” Or, “Is this a joke? Is that the right clip? Is The Boston Globe messing with me?”
Reader, I would never.
But the real question — the one I have spent far too long trying to answer — is why? Why has this seemingly nondescript commercial been so successful that it is still airing even now, hopelessly dated and not even in high definition?
Other commercials of the type known as direct response — your Clappers, your Snuggies, your Pets de Chia, anything that implores you to call now — have become sensations and memes. But imagine for a moment if the “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up” lady still couldn’t get up and was lying exactly as she had fallen when that commercial first aired 30 years ago.
That’s the SunSetter ad, still perfect and almost entirely unchanged.
What special alchemy can turn a straightforward ad for something that makes your deck cooler into a juggernaut the likes of which the industry has never seen? How, to put it more succinctly, did an awning company in Malden stumble onto The Greatest Commercial of All Time?
Bear with me. Because while unfurling a SunSetter awning takes just a few seconds (“It provides instant shade!”), unraveling the untold story behind The Greatest Commercial of All Time isn’t so simple.
It is comforting, in some measure, to know that an all-consuming fascination with this commercial is a side effect of repeated viewing. Go ahead, search Twitter.
the only two things that can survive a nuclear apocalypse are the cockroach and the Sunsetter Retractable Awning commercial— camille (@cameelie) April 26, 2018
A few years ago, comedian Drew Carey tweeted about the ad, too: “I wonder how old the actors from the Sunsetter Retractible [sic] Awning commercial are now? 70? 80?”
I wonder how old the actors from the Sunsetter Retractible Awning commercial are now? 70? 80?— 🅳🆁🅴🆆 🅲🅰🆁🅴🆈 (@DrewFromTV) March 27, 2015
Well, Drew, I wondered the same thing. So I tracked them down.
“We don’t usually give our ages!” said Shauna Bartel, who is now an actor and an acting coach in Orlando (and is far short of 70 or 80). She runs Cast Studio Orlando and performs locally to some acclaim. But to her enduring surprise, it’s the SunSetter ad that’s the cockeyed crown on her career.
“I don’t watch a lot of TV,” Bartel said. And back when she was filming The Greatest Commercial of All Time, she clearly remembers thinking: “I’ll probably never see this.”
And yet, to this day she’ll plop down in the waiting room at the doctor and there she is again, hairsprayed and dressed like a Golden Girl. Once, she saw herself on the little seatback TV on an airplane.
Then we came to the matter at hand: Why? Why is this commercial still a thing?
“I do not know,” Bartel said. “The only thing I can think is that people like the idea of having a relaxing place.”
For David Dodd, a longtime morning radio host in Sarasota, Fla., the commercial was the beginning of a pretty good run as a TV pitchman.
“Once you have a hit, the industry keeps track of you,” he said. Next thing you know, you’re selling water purification systems and interviewing chimps.
Dodd looks a little like John Ritter, and a little like onetime presidential hopeful John Edwards — a resemblance that Bill O’Reilly spent a few days riffing on back when Edwards was in the news (“Exactly what is he doing in an awning commercial?” O’Reilly joked on his show).
The commercial has been airing for so long that SunSetter has had to bring Dodd back twice to re-record a few very important words that have changed over the years: the price. The dubbing is pretty well done these days, but it’s still not hard to spot.
And so I ask again: Why?
“It’s one of those things you really can’t explain,” said Dodd, who also uses the on-air name David Jones.“For whatever reason it moves the needle for them. I don’t know why.”
Dodd and Bartel — yes, they’re still getting paid — seem at peace with the fact that nothing they ever do will be seen even 1 percent as often as The Greatest Commercial of All Time.
“I do have people that I don’t even know who send me fan messages,” Bartel said.
“Most of them are very complimentary,” Bartel said. “‘I love you in the SunSetter commercial,’ ‘you’re a beautiful lady,’ things like this.”
Predictably, some of them are gross, or just weird. One guy wanted to buy her shoes. Another asked for a picture of her in a hat.
“I have had people who are a little upset,” Bartel said, “and are like, PLEASE STOP SHOWING THE COMMERCIAL.”
But for 14 years, SunSetter has declined to stop showing the commercial. Even if the people who run the company would love nothing more.
The thing about direct response commercials is that it’s fairly easy to know whether they’re working. Either the phone rings, or it doesn’t; either the clicks pile up on your website, or they don’t. And for SunSetter, a 20-year-old operation in a nondescript industrial building near the head of the Malden River, this particular commercial has kept the phones ringing.
“It’s our workhorse,” said Ray Morlock, SunSetter’s general manager. He bears a passing resemblance to Bill Belichick, and a professional photo of a backyard party under the SunSetter awning on his home adorns the small conference room here.
SunSetter was founded in Malden in 1988 and helped to introduce Americans to the kind of awnings that were already popular in Europe, where energy costs are higher. By any measure, the company has been successful. Over the summers, when the workforce doubles to nearly 200 people, the company assembles and ships hundreds of awnings a day. In 2016, SunSetter was bought by a Wisconsin firm, Springs Window Fashions.
But talk to Morlock about the The Greatest Commercial Ever Made and you get the sense that it’s a bit of a sore spot around here. That’s because SunSetter has spent years trying to improve upon the commercial, to find something that appeals to even more people and sells even more awnings.
“We’ve tried to unseat it, and we’ve spent a lot of money trying to unseat it,” Morlock said. “We’ve tried agency after agency with new locations, new scripts.”
Four or five ad agencies have come in, looked at the trusty old ad — at Dave and Shauna and haircuts rendered obsolete over the course of thousands upon thousands of sunrises— and scoffed.
They never come out and say it, but Morlock can practically hear it in their voices: Improving upon this quirky, ancient spot should be easy money.
So the new firms retreat into their Don Draper labs and come back with something new and slick. They storyboard and script it, and everybody agrees: This is the one. This is the new and improved SunSetter commercial.
Except it’s not. It never is. SunSetter tests the new ad against the classic, airing both ads and tracking which ads generate the most calls, clicks, and, eventually, sales. And the classic wins every time.
They’ve tried everything: kids and minor celebrities, different scenarios and scripts. Just last year, SunSetter filmed a new spot that explicitly mimics the original but does not appear to have been aired accidentally from a VHS tape that got stuck in a machine at CNN’s production facility 15 years ago.
And even self-plagiarism lost. Badly.
Inside SunSetter, the theory is that the commercial has been airing for so long that nostalgia is beginning to work in its favor. The market for an awning bolted to the side of your house skews older, Morlock said, and so the standard definition ad and the dated clothes play pretty well. Dodd and Bartel look like SunSetter’s customers remember themselves looking, or maybe like their adult children.
But some of it is just impossible to make sense of. When price increases rendered the ad obsolete a few years into its run, SunSetter made a version that cut away from Dodd to announce the new price and tested it against the dubbed version. And the dubbed version won.
“We fixed the lips! But when the lips were dubbed incorrectly it was still a winning ad, which is hard to understand,” Morlock said.
“Human nature is the weirdest thing.”
“Every time I see it on TV I think, ‘You know, I wouldn’t change one thing about it,’ ” said Jerry Roache, the writer and creator of The Greatest Television Commercial Ever. “I’ve never said that about anything I’ve ever written.”
At this point — if you haven’t done it already — it might be time to watch this thing again. But I’ve already been over it like it’s the Zapruder film. I know that the dogwalker in the background was a happy accident; I know that the lemonade at the end is weirdly clear because the pitcher was full of real ice on a very hot day; I know that Dodd’s shirt-tug at the beginning was ad-libbed. So I’m going to sit this viewing out and I’ll see you in two minutes.
Whatever perfection Roache, Dodd, Bartel, and director Jeanne Suggs achieved here is not really discernible with the untrained eye.
So when Roache and Suggs give a great deal of credit to the remarkable chemistry between the two actors, well, I’m not really sure what to do with that.
“The combination of David and Shauna — they were young actors,” Suggs said. “There was an innocence that was communicated in their performance.”
This is hard to fathom. Innocence? They’re selling awnings. But it’s also sort of true. There’s no eye-rolling “Honeymooner” tropes about the husband’s blundering or the wife’s money wasting. They’re just really happy about their patio being in the shade.
But nothing — except, apparently, The Greatest Television Commercial Ever Made — lasts forever.
Several years after it started airing, SunSetter launched a new product that wasn’t referenced in the ad: an awning with a remote control. So they got the whole band back together: Jones and Bartel, Roache, and Suggs and filmed a nearly identical ad, but with the remote control. But even that one couldn’t beat the original.
“From the day we got there, the magic just wasn’t there,” Roache recalled. In the end, they cut one new shot of Bartel’s hand holding the remote control for her awning into the old commercial.
Morlock said SunSetter would love to find success with a new ad that broadens the company’s customer base. Selling awnings to younger generations is a challenge that even David and Shauna can’t solve.
Meanwhile, the cost of advertising has risen. SunSetter buys blocks of airtime known as remnants, Morlock said, bidding against, say, the mesothelioma people for whatever CNN or FOX or Headline News has left after selling the higher viewership slots to pharmaceutical companies.
The Greatest Television Commercial Ever Made, which airs seasonally, will go into hibernation for the winter. But come spring, it will no doubt be back yet again, Morlock said.
Then, David and Shauna will be back right where we left them, living happily together. The sun never sets, but their patio — “about 20 degrees cooler!” — is forever in the shade.