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Stories that sold

Hub ad agencies churned out compelling campaigns in 2011

By Johnny Diaz
Globe Staff / December 21, 2011
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It was the year of the storyteller.

In 2011, local ad agencies churned out campaigns designed to both play well on TV or go viral on YouTube. Several featured quirky, punchy storylines that resonated with consumers nationwide.

“The commercials were geared toward engaging the viewer more, instead of making them part of the message,’’ said Geoff Klapisch, a Boston University advertising professor. “More of a two-way dialogue, instead of a one-way monologue.’’

Take the “Ground Rules’’ videos produced by Boston ad agency Mullen for JetBlue Airways. In one video, a taxi driver shoves his seat back into the knees of his passengers who might tolerate a cramped space in an airliner, but not on the ground. Created as online videos, the spots eventually aired on TV in Boston and other major markets.

“There’s no better way to make people understand [a message] than by telling a story,’’ said Susan Alessandri, an advertising professor at Suffolk University.

Here are some memorable local ads from the past year - some great, some not so effective, according to local advertising analysts, media executives, and the advertising agencies that created the campaigns.

The ones that worked

Client: JetBlue Airways

Agency: Mullen

What: Mullen used hidden cameras to illustrate how people will accept bad behavior from airlines, but not other services. The obnoxious cab driver was featured in one video; another showed an office building elevator operator pushing every button to annoy other riders. The theme: “If you wouldn’t take it on the ground, then don’t take it in the air.’’

Why: “The use of the improv actors and unsuspecting customers to compare typical airline services to slice-of-life situations was a terrific concept,’’ said Chris Cakebread, a Boston University advertising professor.

Client: CVS/pharmacy

Agency: Arnold Worldwide

What: A customer rides a Segway into a store, then banters with a pharmacist. “I’m Bonnie, and this is my CVS,’’ she says, just before we see her name mounted above the store’s entrance.

Why: “Because it was unrealistic - a customer riding a Segway inside CVS - it also made it effective,’’ said Boston University’s Klapisch. “It helped retain viewers, finding out what was going to happen to the character inside the CVS.’’

Client: Barnes & Noble

Agency: Mullen

What: A montage of scenes show a young student reading in her school’s stairwell, an elderly record store clerk engrossed in an e-book, and a couple reading in bed. The ad ends with a young girl asleep in her bedroom, clenching her Barnes & Noble Nook e-reader. The tagline: “Read forever.’’

Why: “It made it OK to still love the physical book, while still indulging reading them digitally,’’ said Suffolk University’s Alessandri. “Look at all these different generations reading and enjoying stories. It was a very feel-good ad.’’

Client: Aflac Insurance

Agency: Digitas

What: Digitas created quirky and fun online spots to audition a new voice for its famed duck mascot.

Why: The duck quacks the insurer’s company name in a distinctive fashion. “The sound is memorable,’’ said Bruce Mittman, president of Boston agency Mittcom. “It’s a cute creative concept, and a device to sell a product that is somewhat unemotional.’’

Client: Boston Celtics

Agency: Allen & Gerritsen

What: The new “I am a Celtic’’ multimedia campaign features a spot called “Causeway,’’ which shows players on the TD Garden court and a series of dramatic statements unfolding on the screen, ending with, “I am Causeway Street’’ and “I am home.’’

Why: The ad serves as a reminder that the Celtics are back, and ready to play. “The ad clearly taps into the intensity of the sport, linking that emotion to the home court, and of course, the fans,’’ said BU’s Cakebread. “The ad clearly seems to be calling directly to the fans, who are very loyal.’’

Client: Major League Baseball

Agency: Hill Holliday

What: Tired of being booed by New York Yankees fans, Red Sox slugger David Ortiz hits the streets of the Big Apple and happily hugs people, from police officers and taxi drivers to construction workers, in an effort to win them over.

Why: “That spot quickly grabbed the viewer into the story, and it’s a story people know about,’’ said BU’s Klapisch. “The spot became an almost small reality show to find out what would happen to the main character, David Ortiz.’’

Client: Dunkin’ Donuts

Agency: Hill Holliday

What: Everyday folks hoist their iced coffees for a campaign that asked, “What are you drinkin’?’’ A Boston version of the ad featured local people and landmarks.

Why: “In an age of evolving micro-targeted advertising, what could be more micro that these?’’’ asked Steve Conroy, a Boston publicist, who cheered the accuracy of the spots, right down to the Boston accents. “You had to listen two or three times to hear what one guy from Dot Ave was drinking. . . . Very targeted and no phony background; hey, that’s the Copley T stop!’’

The ones that didn’t work

Client: New Balance

Agency: Arnold Worldwide

What: An evening jogger sprints into a convenience store, where a clerk calls him out for having one foot bare while the other sports the New Balance Minimus sneaker. The tagline: “Like barefoot, only better.’’

Why: The spot connects the viewer with the idea that wearing this particular sneaker is a lot like being barefoot.

Suffolk’s Alessandri thought the setting interfered with the message. “Instead of thinking about the shoes, I’m left wondering why it was set in a convenience store, where a real runner wouldn’t stop mid-run, and why the store clerk has to be sort of icky,’’ she said. “I think the story elements are getting in the way of the ad’s message.’’

Client: Cigna

Agency: Hill Holliday

What: In a video titled “True You,’’ folks dressed in costumes, including an astronaut, a princess, and a superhero, roam city streets. The tagline: “Be true to yourself. What’s healthier than that?’’

Why: The pop-folksy music is catchy. The consumer wonders, where these people are going. But BU’s Klapisch thought the ad missed its mark.

“I was struggling to find the core message, the brand identity,’’ he said. “I didn’t see what their focus was.’’


Agency: Mullen

What: A series of ads, first in print, then online, featured female models riding a scooter, jogging, or hailing a taxi while wearing only shoes or boots, and strategically placed censoring labels. The tagline: “More than shoes!’’ emphasizing that the online shoe retailer also sells clothing.

Why: A naked person on the street commands your attention.

But Suffolk’s Alessandri didn’t think this Zappos campaign worked. “I love Zappos. I hated the ad,’’ she said. “I thought it was lazy and cliche.’’

Johnny Diaz can be reached at

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