Casting

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Tom Carvel

Tom Carvel

As a creative in advertising, I find my teeth grinding whenever I see a commercial that is clearly a do-it-yourself production. You know the ones I mean. The spots typically feature a business owner who thinks he can save money by not hiring an agency and by being his own spokesman. Zero charisma. Lame delivery. Bad puns.

As a business owner, I have a slightly different take, especially in the present economic climate. The late great Tom Carvel represents what’s both right and wrong about this approach.

Back in the 70s and 80s, Tom made himself synonymous with his soft ice cream empire by doing home-made commercials with home-made announcing. His distinctive voice, as someone on a Comments page put it, “sounds like Tom Waits gargling hot asphalt.” There were times it was even hard to make out what Carvel was saying.

But it is hard to argue with results. Tom Carvel built a highly successful fast food franchise, as evidenced here and here. Not believing in ad agencies was not the same thing as not believing in advertising. Clearly, Carvel had faith in marketing and he funded it and threw himself into it full bore. He came up with novel names for ice-cream novelties, such as Cookie-Pus and Tom Turkey. He spent a lot of money on media in order to attract business to his stores.

Today, Carvel the company is going strong long after its founder’s passing. The offbeat ice cream cakes still bear the names of the characters that Tom Carvel created. I’m guessing that an agency is involved now. Fudgie the Whale appears to be a little too carefully art directed. Instead of looking like the creation of someone armed with a cake icer and not enough time serve up his creation, Fudgie now resembles the baby monster that bursts out of John Hurt’s chest in Alien. I miss Tom’s amateurish but consistently funded efforts to build his brand.

Fudgie the Whale

Fudgie the Whale

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Progressive Star Flo (aka Stephanie Courtney)

Madison Avenue Walk of Fame Candidate, Flo (aka Stephanie Courtney)

A recent trip to the post office turned into a surprising advertising moment. The lady behind the counter was doing her own personal market research. She wondered if I knew who Flo was, because her husband had suggested she needed to be more like her (I think she was still concerned whether this was a good or bad thing). She went on to explain that Flo was the lady in the Progressive Insurance commercials, but she didn’t need to tell me. If postal employees are getting subliminal lessons about being upbeat, bubbly, and gregarious from Flo through their spouses, then Stephanie Courtney (the professional actress who plays Flo) and the casting director for Progressive Insurance’s agency have earned their compensation many times over.

For a nice profile on Stephanie (Flo) and many other current commercial favorites, look up Kate Ward’s Commercial Stars in the March 26 issue of Entertainment Weekly. My personal faves are Geneva Carr for AT&T as the humorously intense mother protecting her family’s unused wireless rollover minutes, Jim Annan and Matt McCarthy as the sparring rival installers in the Verizon FiOS spots, and Molly Culver who has great black and white chemistry with her husband having already spent their Chase Sapphire reward points on a new dress.

These actors may not have Oscars (or even feature roles) on their resumes yet, but their ability to connect with audiences in under 30 seconds is a testament to their talent. More importantly, each is a unique embodiment that underscores if you want to build a brand identity, you need professional talent at every step (great strategy, great writing, great art direction, great direction and production, and don’t ever forget great casting and great acting).

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