When the environmental org Heal the Bay was looking to make a splash to push California lawmakers on a proposed ban on plastic shopping bags, it chose not to pluck a celebrity for a standard public service announcement but to create a four-minute “mockumentary” narrated by Jeremy Irons.
“The Majestic Plastic Bag — A Mockumentary” explores the “cycle of life” of a plastic bag as it treks from a supermarket parking lot in its “long journey toward its final destination” — “the garbage patch in the heart of the Pacific Ocean,” Irons says in a voice full of satirical wonder. In its first five days, the video received more than 100,000 views on YouTube, which may not shatter viral video records, but is significant for a nonprofit’s statewide scope.
The mere linkage of cause and celebrity for a public service spot is no longer enough to merit attention online The straightforward PSA — in which an earnest boldfaced name stares into a camera and urges action — gets little play in an environment cluttered with acrobatic messaging.
“There’s that, but I just think that the ‘fist-shaking environmentalist’ is something that people turn away from,” says Kevin McCarthy, group creative director for advertising agency DDB/L.A., part of aproject team that included writers Sarah Bates and Regie Miller and director Jeremy Konner.
“The best teachers are the entertaining ones,” he adds.
The video is more satirical in tone than a longer short with the same concept, “Plastic Bag,” by filmmaker Ramin Bahrani and posted to the Independent Television Service’s FutureStates site earlier this year. In that project, filmmakers were asked to provide a vision of American society in the not-too-distant future.
You could say that the daily satire offered up by “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” and “The Colbert Report” have raised the bar on what the audiences will listen to, particularly when it comes to celebrity and politics. Funny or Die, the comedy Web venture created by Will Ferrell, Adam McKay and Chris Henchy, frequently weighs in on causes.
Funny or Die worked with the org Americans for Financial Reform to create the “Presidential Reunion” video, which reunited “Saturday Night Live” cast members who play once and former commanders in chief to reprise their roles in a skit pushing for the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Agency (CFPA). The spot drew some 3.6 million views.
More recently, the org Main Street Brigade unveiled “A Sheriff Warren Wrap,” a musicvideo calling for Elizabeth Warren to be named head of the CFPA.
The risk is that the humor will obscure the message — but in that regard there seems to be plenty of leeway.
Fred Davis’ Hollywood-based firm Strategic Perception, specializing in spots and web videos for GOP campaigns, created the infamous “demon sheep” spot for Carly Fiorina’s U.S. Senate campaign in California. Narrated by Robert Davi, the vid depicted a herd of sheep with a “wolf” in their midst: A costumed sheep with threatening red lights for eyes, a metaphor for the wolf in sheep’s clothing by which she meant to portray her primary opponent, Tom Campbell as a fake conservative. The web spot was much watched, a contrast with most of the standard 30-second ads running on broadcast TV. It also cost just $20,000, a fraction of the millions it would take to run it on stations across the state.
“I think the benefits outweigh the risks in 99% of the cases,” Davis says. “Like anything else, you have to get the balance right.”
Davis says his firm’s rules are “No. 1: attract attention. No. 2: Get the message right.” “In the old days it was the opposite,” he says.
Davis also produced the “Celebrity” spot that linked Barack Obama’s notoriety to Paris Hilton’s, something that actually got traction for John McCain’s campaign when it was unveiled in the summer of 2008. But “in a presidential race, it is hard to use humor, because the stakes are so high,” Davis says.
Campaigns are less likely to take risks, and when they do, they can fall flat. In 2008, Bill Richardson deployed humor in a spot in which he was depicted interviewing for the job of commander-in-chief, but it was not “presidential,” Davis says, particularly as the candidate was trying to be viewed as a serious contender.
Heal the Bay had been trying to create some kind of a spot that would draw attention as an Aug. 31 deadline looms to pass AB 1998, authored by Santa Monica Assemblywoman Julia Brownley, which would bar stores from handing out single-use plastic or paper bags.
Although Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has indicated support, the bill faces strong opposition from orgs like the American Chemistry Council, whose spokesman Tim Shestek says it “threatens to eliminate more than 1,000 stable, family-wage jobs and dismantle a growing recycling program.”
Heal the Bay had been working with DDB/L.A., which through Heal the Bay’s connections to the entertainment community, secured the cooperation of Irons, who fit well with the project because the plans were to have a “British voiceover in the spirit of David Attenborough,” McCarthy says. Irons was shooting a movie in Hungary, so his narration had to be recorded on set there.
“It was the idea of following a bag through the city, out to the ocean, in the spirit of trying to find something entertaining, as opposed to telling them how awful it is,” McCarthy says.
The result, says Heal the Bay’s Kirsten James, “is exactly what we need to get momentum up on this piece of legislation.”
Photo: Heal the Bay.