How To...Make a Funny Ad Campaign Last
By Kim Girard; Bob Nugent

(Business 2.0) – Eleven years ago, Jack in the Box faced one of the biggest PR nightmares in corporate history: Four children died from E. coli bacteria linked to its burgers. While CEO Bob Nugent scrambled to calm freaked-out customers and shareholders and overhauled the company's health-safety standards, adman Dick Sittig stepped in to scrub the fast-food franchise's image. Enter Jack, ostensibly the company's founder and CEO, except that his head is a giant ping-pong ball with a face drawn on it. The joke, as Jack cleans house, replacing old management with new, is that he acts like a hip CEO. The "Jack's Back" campaign could easily have backfired. But 10 years and 300 commercials later, Jack is still the face of the company--and still making people laugh. (In a recent ad for a new spicy chicken sandwich, after he repeatedly butchers the word "chipotle," his semicircle mouth contorts into a scribble.) And Sittig, creative director of Santa Monica, Calif., ad firm Secret Weapon, still writes and directs all the Jack ads. He clearly is the voice of Jack too, though he won't confirm that--or even comment on who's inside the ping-pong ball. -- INTERVIEW BY KIM GIRARD

The original Jack in the Box clown had a large head and a pointy hat. McDonald's has a happy clown for kids. We thought, What if Jack was this no-nonsense take-charge kind of clown who never acknowledges that he's a clown? We wanted him to be more like [Virgin's] Richard Branson or [Southwest's] Herb Kelleher. He's a charismatic CEO. One thing that works is that you have this bizarre character in a Brooks Bros. suit in the real world. Since he's the founder of the company, there would be no topic he couldn't talk about.

But we know there's a huge difference between being funny and being annoying. It's not the story of "Jack in the restaurant squeezing tomatoes." He has a family, he fires people, he goes on vacation. We give him an unlimited universe to play in. The trick is how to be just funny enough to persuade people--like Volkswagen's "Drivers Wanted" ads and the happy cows for California cheese. They're long-running, they make a point, and yet they stay fresh.

We don't have to do anything per se to inspire creativity at the agency. We don't have to go out to the desert. One thing that works is we have a policy of no more than three clients at one time. Most agencies have a dozen, 15, or 20 clients. We can really concentrate. We're not running around in a panic.

To the company's credit, we don't do copy testing. We don't pretest commercials. The tendency with some clients is that once they find something that works, they want to repeat it until people are bored with it. Jack in the Box management has always allowed us to zig and zag. But they monitor it all the time to see if people still care.

Would we ever kill Jack? Every time Jack in the Box does research to see if the campaign is doing OK, it always comes back positive. So even though it rhymes nicely, I don't think we'll see Jack in Iraq.