You Don’t Know Jack
The Humble Beginnings of a Comedy Classic: Jack in the Box...
I prairie-dogged over the top of a divider in my corner of a cubical jungle. A freshly minted producer/director in the creative services department, I confided in my boss that I knew joining KOMO Television was the right choice. I explained I had just passed the janitor in the hall and told him one of the toilets was backed up. The janitor thanked me and detoured straight into the restrooms. My boss blinked a couple times and said, “Our janitors only work at night.”
After I explained what the disheveled character looked like, he gasped and said, “That’s the station manager.” Replaying the moment in my head, I wondered whether I had just told the station manager to go fix a backed-up toilet. I felt a little faint. And then the station manager, Pat Scott, rounded the corner into our offices.
With a proud look of satisfaction on his face and his hands on his hips, he proclaimed the problem solved and then disappeared as quickly as he had entered. I thought: Yep, I’ve come to the right place.
I’m sure Jack in the Box thought the same thing when they followed Dick Sittig to his newly formed agency, Kowloon Wholesale Seafood Co. His earlier work included iconic campaigns like Joe Isuzu and the Energizer Bunny. But that loyalty galvanized a relationship that would continue on as one of the longest-running fast food campaigns in history.
Sittig took over the account while at Chiat/Day Los Angeles. The burger giant was nearly toppled by an E. coli outbreak in 1993, and the brand was still reeling. Jack in the Box needed a complete break with their old marketing, and they were open to new ideas. Thus was born… Jack.
Sittig created the character, directed the first spot and narrated Jack’s voice. It isn’t a stretch to say Sittig was Jack. So it wasn’t surprising that, when Jack in the Box became the ugly step-child at the agency, Sittig left and took the business with him. Chiat was okay with watching the clown walk, because they had just inked a new client, Jack’s fast-food rival Taco Bell.
So after the contract with Chiat ended, Sittig set up his own agency, later renamed Secret Weapon Marketing. Jack was his only client. Sittig took a chance on an account that no one wanted. Jack in the Box took a chance on Sittig. The relationship lasted 20 years. He continued to be the voice of the brand, and the voice of the larger-than-life CEO, Jack, until they parted ways in 2015.
And now here’s more than 40 minutes of Jack in the Box commercials – a look back at the early, sidesplitting work:
Transforming Jack from a clown who takes orders at the drive-through to a frustrated CEO opened up the character to a world of comedic situations. Men could relate to this clown. He has virtues. He has flaws. He has frustrations. Jack is one of the most well-rounded characters in fast food history. Looking at you, Ronald McDonald and Burger King.
He eventually lost the silly hat, but Jack Box remained the same, pitch-perfect character for decades. Of course, the writing and delivery were stellar, but one of my favorite characteristics of Jack is the ability to convey a range of emotions without changing his face. The first time they changed his omni-clown smile to a straight line, I just about died laughing.
In high school, the parking lot of Jack in the Box was my favorite hangout on a Saturday night – everyone ended up there. I remember completely over-reacting when someone stole my Jack antenna ball. Yes, antennas used to stick straight up from the top of a car. And yes, I put Jack’s grinning head on top of my antenna.
And Jack is still one of my favorite comedic characters of all time.
Mike Johnston is a production executive and advertising creative in Seattle. He is available for freelance consulting, writing and directing. Contact Mike