The Customers Get the Last Laugh

It’s not what you put into your ad, it’s what the audience takes away from it

In his recent autobiography, All About Me, writer, filmmaker, and occasional actor, Mel Brooks, talks about the one fight he had with Gene Wilder on the set of their 1974 movie, Young Frankenstein. It was over the scene where Dr. Frankenstein introduces his creature to the medical community with an absurd song-and-dance to Puttin’ on the Ritz.


“It was Gene’s idea and I told him I thought it was a great idea and very funny, but it was too far out … I insisted it was too silly and would tear the continuity of the movie to pieces. … we almost got into a fistfight because of it.”


Finally, Brooks agreed to film the scene and test it on a preview audience. When the audience loved it, Brooks happily conceded, “Gene, you were absolutely right. Not only does it work, but it may be one of the best things in the whole movie … it took the movie to another level. We left satire and made it our own. It was new, different, crazy …”

A great reminder to those of us in advertising that, despite all our experience, despite our intentions, sometimes things resonate with the public that we don’t expect and certainly don’t plan for.

Sometimes the audience knows what works more than we do.

 Wendy’s classic “Fluffy Bun” spot is a great example. What? You don’t remember “Fluffy Bun”? 


That was the commercial with three elderly women clustered around a fast-food burger that was more bun and burger. “A big fluffy bun,” as one of the ladies described it – the phrase that ad creator Cliff Freeman of Dancer Fitzgerald Sample was certain would catch on with public.


Instead, it was the third lady’s exclamation – “Where’s the beef?” – that became a pop culture phenomenon. (The actual line in the script was “Where is all the beef?” but with her emphysema, she couldn’t get all the words out.)


“Where’s the beef?” was quoted at dinner tables, in schoolyards and offices, appeared on tee shirts and TV shows, and was even invoked in that year’s presidential debate. Wendy’s saw a 31% increase in annual revenue. And the woman uttering the now iconic phrase – octagenerian Clara Peller – enjoyed a few years of fame on talk shows, other commercials, even a novelty song.


"It goes to show you," Freeman later said. "You just never can tell what people will think is funny."

And you can never be sure what people will remember about your campaign, either. 

Take the Milk Mustache campaign from the National Fluid Milk Processor Promotion Board. You know this one. Started in 1994. Nutritional facts about milk, delivered by celebrities in milk mustaches, culminating in that memorable themeline … “Milk. What a surprise.”


That’s not the one you remember? Must the one they switched to in the campaign’s second year, when it was clear that the lactose-mustachioed celebrities were the big draw: “Milk. Where’s ­your mustache?”


Still not it? Despite the success of the campaign in reversing decades of declining milk sales, few people seemed to connect with either of those slogans. Instead, as related in The Milk Mustache Book: A behind-the-scenes look at America’s favorite advertising campaign, the public kept combining the milk-mustache visuals with the themeline of another campaign that was concurrently being run by the California Milk Processors Board.


Eventually, the ad agency gave up trying to fight it. “The public always lumped our campaigns together, explained Jay Schulberg in The Milk Mustache Book: A behind-the-scenes look at America’s favorite advertising campaign. “So why not put the two together in one ad? So that’s what we did.”


And in 1998, the milk mustache campaign sported the themeline that it’s still known by today: “Got Milk?”

In Got Milk: The Book, Jeff Manning of the CMPB boiled it down even simpler: “The reality is that customers don’t give a twit about who sponsors what … they either like the ads, find them memorable and compelling, or they don’t.”

And sometimes, it’s the client that doesn’t like the ad and needs convincing. 

In the late 1990s, the auto insurer Geico had a market share in the single digits, and was in need of a stronger brand image in consumers’ minds. Early spots used humorous vignettes to draw attention to their message that “15 minutes could save you 15% or more on car insurance.” – but the Geico name apparently wasn’t breaking through.


In fact, people were often mispronouncing (or misremembering) Geico as “Gecko.”


But their ad firm, the Martin Agency, saw an opportunity in that mispronunciation, and created a commercial that featured a British-accented gecko lizard clinging to a microphone at a press conference, pleading that, “I am a gecko, not to be confused with Geico … so stop calling me!”


Simple. Effective. Memorable. But not everyone was convinced – most significantly, Geico’s Vice President for Marketing, Ted Ward.

“I thought nothing of the idea,” he recalled in a 2016 podcast. “It was a 15-second commercial and probably would have died a cruel and hideous death, except SAG [the Screen Actors Guild] went out on strike, and we couldn’t use real people for a while, and someone said, ‘Well, let’s use that gecko …’”

The gecko turned out to be quite sticky, going on to star in over 150 spots, and helping Geico climb to the #2 position in the industry. 

As for Ted? He eventually came around. “I quickly became much more fond of him as we sold more policies. I’m a big fan of anything that makes our phone ring or website click. He really has helped us brandwise.”

Finally, back to Mel Brooks, who’s also learned his lesson about second-guessing creative inspiration. 

His next picture, Silent Movie (a comedic ode to the silent pictures of Hollywood’s pre-sound era), included a sequence in a restaurant named Chez Lobster. Accordingly, both staff and diners are played by giant lobsters, and humans are swimming nervously in a tank before being fished out for some crustacean’s entree.


“We thought it was an inspired turn-about-is-fair-play concept. But when we screened it, it didn’t get a single laugh ... So out it went! Because the final judgment was always left up to the audience.”

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This essay also posted on LinkedIn


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