Big advertisers have created an army of animated product ambassadors over the decades to help sell web services, insurance and suntan lotion. Toucan Sam, Tony the Tiger and Mr. Clean were always good soldiers who could be counted upon to tout the virtues of breakfast cereal or cleaning fluid in 30 seconds or less.
Two new brand operatives, however, act more like employees gone rogue.
Rick and Morty, an oddball grandfather-and-grandson team from the Adult Swim series of the same name, have quickly become a go-to duo to boost advertising heavies like Wendy’s, Wrangler, and even staid consumer-products giant Kellogg Co. On Friday, the animated pair will try to bring a spotlight to Sony Corp.’s new PlayStation 5.
The creators of anxious Morty and flinty Rick have “an outrageous approach to pop-culture and entertainment,” says Eric Lempel, senior vice president and head of global marketing for Sony Interactive Entertainment, that executives are counting on to “create an iconic moment.” He should know. In 2019, Sony tapped Rick and Morty and their human backers to devise a commercial for “Death Stranding,” a new game release. The storyline is tough to summarize, but suffice it to say the two characters debate the pros and cons of dining on a baby who is accompanying them in their travels.
The new PlayStation spot sets Rick and Morty off on what may be their strangest adventure yet: they actually understand they are doing an ad. “Talk about the thing – they paid us a lot!,” says Rick, who continues to flummox Morty with a flurry of stage directions. He counts a big pile of money all the while.
The two animated figures “really get some energy going,” says Jimmy Bennett, vice president of marketing for Wendy’s and a former marketing executive at Adult Swim.
Rick Sanchez and Morty Smith have not suddenly been made available for marketing purposes. Indeed, they helped fast food chain Carl’s Jr. bring meaty favorites like the Thickburger to life in a 2015 animated spot. Yet it was a Pringles commercial featuring the two characters that debuted earlier this year in the Super Bowl that has really drawn attention to the pair’s knack for pitching products, says Tricia Melton, chief marketing officer for Warner Brothers’ global kids, young adults and classics division. “That didn’t hurt,” she quips in an interview.
Advertisers have long been drawn to subversive and off-kilter cartoon characters. Nestle, then the manufacturer of the Butterfinger, tapped Bart Simpson as the spokesperson for the candy for more than a decade starting in the late 1980s. The Subway restaurant chain made use of “Family Guy” patriarch Peter Griffin in 2007, having him read an ode to “the Subway feast.”
Rick and Morty are accomplishing the trick, however, in a decidedly different era – one in which advertisers are more concerned about offending consumers or tripping the wrong red or blue sentiment. Part of the characters’ success comes from the fact they are used in mobile apps and social content, making them familiar to people across a broader array of media.
The pair routinely travel to new dimensions as part of the series’ storyline, in which grandfather and mad scientist Rick takes his timid grandson to bizarre worlds. Now executives at WarnerMedia need to make sure that fans don’t mind Rick and Morty making regular trips to Madison Avenue. Can they keep monetizing the pair beyond TV without alienating fans who probably don’t want to see them sell out?
“We have to tend to the brand carefully and make sure we are not over-commercializing it,” says Melton. “We want to thread that needle smartly,” she adds, because “we have such a trust with our fan base.”
Don’t expect to see Rick or Morty singing a slogan or telling viewers they can pick something up for a low, low price, she says. “The rules are really ‘work with us and trust us,’ because what we are probably not going to do — if they have to have control or need a partnership where someone is going to repeat back product points and brand talking points,” then the characters can’t take part. The partnerships typically start out with a deal to buy advertising inventory on Adult Swim, says Melton, and then can expand to pacts that allow the marketers to license the characters for others uses.
“We really work hard not to have anybody wince,” says Melton.
The mandates of marketing Rick and Morty sound a lot like the ones advertisers have heard over the years when they have tried to work with Stephen Colbert. The late-night host has, during his years with Comedy Central and CBS, done work for advertisers ranging from Kraft to Google. But he typically makes clear he won’t be reading pre-scripted lines, according to media buyers who have arranged integrations with his programs. Instead, Colbert likes to create original content for his audience that incorporates the products into the humor.
The same is true of Rick and Morty, says Melton. Creators Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon are often involved in devising the commercial content, or at the very least get to approve it. The idea is to keep the characters’ fans entertained by giving them more adventures with their favorites, says Melton –and that sometimes means ad partners have to give up some authority.
WarnerMedia has good reason to keep Rick and Morty under a bit of glass. The characters have been with Adult Swim since 2013, and have been so popular Adult Swim in 2018 ordered up 70 more episodes of the series — more than double the amount of shows that had been aired at the time. The show generated more than $71.3 million in advertising in 2019, according to Kantar, a tracker of ad spending, from marketers that included Wendy’s, Geico and Amazon.
Madison Avenue yearns for the twosome because they draw young male consumers who don’t sit around and stare at broadcast shows in primetime. “It’s the guys who love burgers,” says Bennett, the Wendy’s marketing executive, but they “have been difficult to track down.” Adult Swim says “Rick and Morty” has been a top show among viewers between 18 and 24 and 18 and 34, and notes its episodes even generated 7 million views on the HBO Max streaming-video hub between June and August.
Sometimes, Rick and Morty must make advertisers aware of their potential. The series’ fourth-season finale featured a “NX5 Planet Remover” laser that was sponsored (not really) by Wrangler, the Kontoor Brands denim line. “We started getting calls left and right,” says Jenni Broyles, vice president and general manager of the Wrangler business, and executives saw a chance to “bring in new consumers that loved ‘Rick and Morty’ and expose them to what our jeans could do for them.”
The company even created a denim jacket with a laser-etched “Rick and Morty” motif – a reference to the laser in the episode that generated the connection in the first place. “The jackets are sold out, and we are restocking them right now,” says Broyles. Meanwhile, Rick and Morty’s travels seem poised to continue.