Why Comedy Is the Most Effective Way to Advertise
I was in a dimly lit edit bay, trolling through miles of footage from a commercial shoot that had gone wrong. The cut wasn’t working and no one had any idea how to fix it, so I was asked to provide a fresh pair of eyes. Then I saw it. Standing up, I pointed at the screen and told the editor to run the close-up in reverse and lay it in before we went back to the master shot. He shook his head like I had lost my mind.
The footage was a reaction shot of someone turning their head in the wrong direction. It was a cutaway for another part of the commercial, never intended to be part of this sequence. But it was exactly what we needed. The problem was that we needed to move the line of interest – a filmmaking term that allows the subsequent shots to be edited from a new perspective. After we edited in the new shot, the spot worked perfectly.
Sometimes those seemingly throwaway moments become profoundly important later.
Such were the humble beginnings of one of the longest-running campaigns in advertising history, Sonic Drive-In’s “Two Guys.”
The campaign originated as a completely different assignment for the creative team of Matt McKay and Pat Piper. Back in 2002, while at Kansas City advertising agency Barkley, the duo was tasked with concocting a corporate video for an upcoming convention of Sonic owners and vendors. Their screwball idea was to punk other fast-food chains by hitting the drive-through with hidden cameras and asking for quirky menu items only available at Sonic. It was a hit.
Nurtured from the seeds of a corporate video, they resurrected roughly the same idea for a television commercial pitch. Sonic loved it, and the ensuing campaign went on to become a cultural phenomenon.
They cast Peter Grosz and T.J. Jagodowski to improv irreverent attacks on the competition. The performers brought serious chops to the gig, both having stints at Second City and Grosz being a former writer for “The Colbert Report.” But that didn’t last long. By 2004, the “Two Guys” became so recognizable that they couldn’t pull off their undercover antics anymore. The pair eventually matured into the roles they have to this day, Grosz as the straight man and Jagodowski as the wacky friend. And then someone decided to tinker with the winning formula.
Sonic eventually replaced the pair, the recasting didn’t fare well, and the entire campaign was dropped like a scalding tater tot. But shortly after, the account moved to GSP+P, where the creative brass decided the “Two Guys” had been shelved too early. By 2010, the boys were back. And have been ever since.
The largely improvised spots have a lot of nice things going for them, but my favorite aspect is something I refer to as playing without the ball. Most of the “Two Guy” spots lean on an open two-shot, so we can see both the performer delivering the line and the other performer reacting to the line in the same shot. But a lot of the other coverage also puts the other performer in the frame, because they’re both so good listening and reacting. Below is an example. Don’t watch the person talking. Watch the person “playing without the ball.”
So next time you’re handed what you consider a bottom-of-the-barrel assignment, you actually might be developing the genesis of your next Clio. Or you’re right, and it’s just another lame Christmas-party video. I guess it’s all what you put into it.
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Mike Johnston is a production executive and advertising creative in Seattle. He is available for freelance consulting, writing and directing. Contact Mike.
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