It was the start of the fall car launch and Chicago was sending up their latest commercials. Our job was to decide which ones worked for the Canadian market and which ones didn’t. The creative director had us in the boardroom that morning, briefing us on next steps. “We won’t have much time before we present to the client,” he told us. “The account group’s already gone through the spots and have some thoughts. Let’s listen to their suggestions and decide on next steps.”
His name was Meeks and he suffered from rosacea. His nose was very red. When the account group came in, he nodded to each of them. They had the Chicago reel. We all sat around the television and lit cigarettes.
“The car spots are fine,” Burt Kelly, the account director said. He held the remote with nicotine-stained fingers. “Our concern is the truck spot. Let’s look at it now.”
The commercial started with helicopters flying in a straight line across the sky towards the camera. Suspended beneath each helicopter was a new pickup. Music rose in the distance as if it came from the helicopters.
“You might remember this from Apocalypse Now,” Kelly said, freezing the picture.
“We’ll be advising the client not to run this. Ted will explain our reasoning.”
Ted Simmons, the account supervisor, put out his cigarette and stood up. He leaned on the boardroom table as he spoke.
“If you remember this particular scene in the movie,” he said. “Those helicopters are flying in to napalm the village. Thus, Robert Duvall’s famous words, ‘I love the smell of napalm in the morning.’”
“Amazing scene,” the art director said.
He had one leg tucked up under him. He drew caricatures while Simmons talked. All of his drawings were signed Laz, although his real name was Lasko and he was the youngest member of the group. As the commercial played, he drew, pushing his glasses up on his nose, glancing at the screen, then drawing whatever came into his head.
“Amazing it may well be,” Kelly said. “But war imagery is hardly what a car company should be showing. Are we all in agreement on this?”
Simmons sat back down and picked up his cigarettes.
“So you’re proposing a new spot?” Meeks said.
He looked at his watch.
“I think we should in good conscience,” Kelly said.
“I agree,” Meeks replied. “Do you want the team to develop new creative now? Or wait for the client’s response?”
“I think we should go in with something,” Kelly said.
“Just so we’re all on the same page,” Kelly said. “We’re killing a commercial that cost over seven hundred thousand to make. Whatever we present had better be good.
He looked at Lasko and myself.
“When are we presenting this?” I said.
“Chicago still needs to final edit these spots. That gives us about three weeks. In other words, we need to move fast.”
“I’d like to set up a meeting for Friday,” Simmons said.
“That’s only four days away,” Lasko said.
“I didn’t say it was going to be easy,” Kelly said, standing up.
He walked with Meeks to the door.
“We’ll need to see something internally by Thursday.”
Lasko and I went back to our office. We worked through the afternoon and most of the evening. By eight o’clock, we had ten sketches on the wall. One showed the pickup racing across the desert, tearing up cactus like in a Roadrunner cartoon. As the commercial ends, a large boulder lands next to the pickup, with the music ending like a cartoon as well. The other spots were fairly typical, trucks in motion, rugged scenery, etc.
We ran everything past Meeks the next morning.
The desert spot was his favorite. His only criticism was the special effects. He thought we were spending too much time on flying cactuses.
“We’re selling trucks, for chrissake,” he said.
Ted Simmons came upstairs told us the client would be in first thing Friday morning. “We’re going through media first,” he said, “So plan to present around nine o’clock.”
Most of Thursday was spent tightening the spots, mocking them up, then showing them to the account group. Everyone liked the desert commercial. Meeks still wanted the copy revised to sell the features more.
“Concentrate on the performance,” he said to me.
“That’s what’s missing from Chicago spot,” Kelly said to Simmons. “The trucks are suspended from the helicopters most of the commercial. We don’t see the trucks in motion.”
“I think that’s the argument we go in with,” Simmons agreed.
“Good work, boys,” Kelly said to us. “Make those changes and we’ll get some quotes from the production department.”
The client arrived at eight o’clock Friday morning. Coffee was served first, then the media people went through the fall schedule. Simmons said he’d phone us as soon as they wrapped up.
We waited in my office, going through the storyboards again.
At nine thirty, they called us into the boardroom.
The media people were packing up.
Jack Clement, the client, was up getting coffee. He walked stiffly around the room. He lost a leg flying planes during the Second World War. He was a big guy with huge hands and long creases down his cheeks.
“Good morning, boys,” he said when we sat down.
“Morning, Jack,” Lasko said.
Kelly took a last drag on his cigarette and stood up.
“We’ve seen all the spots, Jack,” he said. “Overall, Chicago did a good job. Our biggest concern is the truck series. There’s a script on page five of your document. Why don’t we look at that now.”
Jack sipped his coffee and turned to the script.
“I know we’ve all seen the commercial,” Kelly said. “Let’s look at it again and Ted will give you our thoughts.”
The lights went down.
Simmons played the spot, then left it on pause.
“We have two concerns, Jack,” Simmons said. “First, too much time is spent on the helicopters. Almost twenty seconds. We aren’t selling helicopters, Jack, we’re selling trucks. We’re selling performance.”
Jack nodded without saying anything.
“Our other problem is the imagery,” Kelly said. “This spot is obviously showing a familiar scene from Apocalypse Now.”
Simmons rewound the commercial to the footage of the helicopters starting their approach on the village, “If you remember the movie, Jack, they’re coming in to napalm a village. It’s very violent. People are killed.”
Jack sipped his coffee.
“You’ll agree it’s pretty serious stuff,” Kelly said.
“I’m familiar with the movie,” Jack said.
“We recommend you don’t run this spot, Jack,” Kelly said. “We have alternative suggestions. The creative group can go through them now.”
Lasko and I stood up, keeping our storyboards face down on the table.
We showed Jack our four ideas, keeping the desert spot until last.
Jack rested his chin on his hands while we talked.
When we finished, Simmons stood up again.
“The last commercial could be very effective, Jack. It certainly gets us away from negative imagery. I’m sure you don’t want your company associated with napalm. We’ve talked to the production department and our spot could be ready in three weeks.”
“We’ve got costings and dates for shooting,” Kelly said.
“That won’t be necessary, Burt,” Jack said. “Your concerns are duly noted. The truck spot stays.”
He pushed away from the table and stood up slowly.
“War is a reality, boys,” he said.
“Napalm isn’t everyone’s idea of reality, Jack,” Simmons said.
Jack gave Simmons a meaningful look.
“Napalm has its uses,” he said.
He put his coffee cup in the garbage and got his coat. He walked stiffly to the door.
“Send me those revised media as soon as possible,” he said. “We can discuss the budget again on Monday.”
Everyone lit cigarettes and waited until he was down the hall.
Kelly blew smoke up at the ceiling.
“That was a lot of work for nothing,” Lasko said.
“It happens,” Kelly said.
“Can you believe that?” I said.
“Believe what?” Kelly looked at me.
“What he just said.”
Kelly put out his cigarette and stood up.
“Thanks for your work, boys,” he said. “Everyone put in a good effort this week. We’ll keep you informed of next steps.”
Lasko and I went back to our office. Meeks called us up.
“Let’s go over the print advertising briefs after lunch,” he said. “We don’t have much time. Jack wants everything by Tuesday. Good work today. I think Jack appreciated your efforts.”
After lunch, everyone got together again. The cigarettes came out, and we went through next steps. An internal review was booked for Monday. That would mean working the weekend. The account group thanked us and gathered their notes.
On the way out, Simmons looked at a caricature Lasko was drawing. He seemed to ponder the image, not sure what to make of it at first. “Don’t let that get around,” he said finally and walked out. Lasko handed it to me. It showed our client crouched down on a beach next to a pickup with helicopter blades and napalm canisters strapped to the sides. There was a voice bubble in sharp black script that said, “I love the smell of a new truck in the morning.”
Behind him, the jungle burned, villagers ran for cover and bodies lay in the sand.
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Laura, Toucan Editrice