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When Ads Go Strange: Skittles Follows Rainbow to Surreal Place


Forget about a pot of gold -- these brightly colored candies lead to human pinatas and animated beards.

In his very first soliloquy, Don Draper summed up advertising's raison d'etre on the pilot episode of Mad Men.

"Advertising is based on one thing: happiness. And you know what happiness is? Happiness is the smell of a new car… It's freedom from fear. It's a billboard on the side of the road that screams with reassurance that whatever you're doing is okay. You are okay." As he looked out the window at the sun setting over Madison Avenue he added, "Or it's having a miniature man suspended from your leaky ceiling who catches falling chewy candies in his mouth."

Okay, so that last part may not have been the approach of the fictional 1960s Sterling Cooper, but it's precisely what the very real world Madison Avenue agency TBWAChiatDay dreamed up in 2007 as part of a Skittles advertising campaign.

It seems many zeitgeists ago that the happiness or "sex sells" tack ruled the advertising landscape. Those simple conceits we could easily wrap our heads around that enticed us to open our wallets no longer cut the Gulden's. We began to require complex, quirky, and often surreal scenarios for the privilege of our consumer dollars.

At least that was the logic at Mars Inc. in 2004 with respect to Skittles. Plateauing sales that lagged Starburst by more than $33 million led the confectionery company to dramatically retool its Skittles brand and the 10-year-old Xanadu-esque "Taste The Rainbow" ad campaign.

According to a 2004 New York Times story:

For Skittles, ''the good news, and the bad news, is that the advertising has been strong,'' said Michael Tolkowsky, vice president for marketing at Masterfoods USA in Hackettstown, N.J., the unit of Mars Inc. that sells Skittles. Despite solid sales and wide brand recognition, Mr. Tolkowsky said, ''it's been hard to move the needle over the past few years.''

... Gerry Graf, executive creative director at TBWA New York, said that to regain consumers' attention, the advertising would have to mix Skittles fantasy with elements more recognizable as part of the real world.

''There were so many more ways to execute magic and fun than just a wizard dancing on a cliff,'' Mr. Graf said. ''When we brought Skittles magic to the real world we started having a lot of fun.''

And lo, with an advertising budget of $20 million, the wacky alternate Skittles universe was born. Instead of magical wizards, we'd be treated to rabbits singing "Libiamo ne'lieti calici" from Giuseppe Verdi's opera La traviata. Characters in the ads would be imbued with spate of Skittles-related supernatural powers and candy buyers would be instructed to do a whole lot more with the rainbow than just taste it.
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