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Take Five: Four Favorite Essays Plus One Never-Before-Seen Essay
By Augusten Burroughs
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2011 Augusten Inc.
All rights reserved.
It was a low point in my career when I found myself as the sole copywriter on the Junior Mints account.
"The concern is," the account executive explained, "growth. How do we grow this business? Because our consumer research shows, people have a mint threshold. And they're just not willing to cross it." He frowned when he said this. Worry was etched on his forehead. Poverty, global warming, the threat of terrorism. I wanted to laugh. And then scream and punch my eardrums out with pens.
I hadn't been on the account for one week and already the phrase mint threshold was being bandied about. This was, I felt, a bad omen.
I was in the first of what would be many Junior Mints meetings. Far more meetings than one would expect of a product that is eaten entirely in the dark.
"Movie theaters, obviously are very important, consumption-wise," the client said, as though ticking off items on a list. "And ..." But then he stopped. Having apparently reached the end of his list. "Well, what I'm saying is that moviegoers are a primary target for us."
And I thought, You're paying a Madison Avenue advertising agency countless millions of dollars a year to tell you this? Don't you already know this?
He added hurriedly, as though just remembering, "And Halloween." He smiled. "Yeah, can't forget Halloween. That's a real big one for us. Real big."
Oh yes, I thought. Must not forget Halloween.
In fairness, the client appeared nice enough. A tall man with red hair and a pencil mustache, he had kind eyes. While not what I would call a dynamic leader, at least he wasn't bitter and outwardly hostile, the way many clients could be. He was polite. This was saying a lot.
Once, a client told me to imagine his product in a brand-new way, in order to energize the brand. "Think of it as a dick. And make people want to suck it."
The Junior Mints brand manager was a relief after that.
But still there were concerns. "So one thing does really worry us," he said.
I wondered if this was not, in fact, why he had been hired by Junior Mints in the first place. What better career for a worrier than as the marketing manager of a lackluster candy brand? "How do we deal with this mint threshold issue? Because if it truly can't be crossed, well, that would seem like big trouble and maybe our sales goals aren't realistic and need to be adjusted. Except I'm not in a position to revise those sales goals. So somehow, we have to meet them. If it's at all possible. Somehow, we've got to get people across that mint threshold."
The account executive said, "We will find a way!" He displayed a pumped energy and enthusiasm that collided with the worry and dread hovering in the air. The result was lightning in the form of "Absolutely!" and "This is going to be exciting!" comments from around the table. And, just as after a thunderstorm, there was a sense of relief, a decompression.
The Junior Mints man smiled for the first time and leaned back in his chair. He glanced down at his hands, noticed they were clenched into fists, and then stretched his fingers over the arm of the chair. He said, "Maybe I will have a little coffee, after all."
Later, in my office, I discussed the project with my art director, Ann.
"So what can we do for dusty old Junior Mints?" she asked.
"Well, I guess we could do something with the name."
"Oh yeah," she said. "That's a good idea. That's what we should do. Pretty much, that's all we can do."
We could take the name and visually illustrate it. Perhaps we could build a campaign around "Junior." Or "Mints." Or even just "mint." I said, "Refresh ... mint. Know what I mean?"
"Got it," she said. "That's what we'll do. We'll do a montage spot. So, like, we'll see somebody in a convertible reach into the glove compartment and pull out a box of Junior Mints. Then we'll have a super over it that reads, 'compart ... mint.' And then maybe we'll show somebody on a beach." She paused. "Or maybe not a beach because the chocolate melts. But maybe on a roller coaster. And they pull a box out of their pocket. Maybe a kid pulls a box out of his pocket."
And I said, "Yeah. Excite ... mint."
"Yup," she said.
"And we'll just take it totally out of the movie theater environment, because they already own that."
Ann added, "Or maybe we could do one. Like, at the end of each spot. We could always end in a movie theatre and say ..."
And together we said: "Entertain ... mint."
We began laughing hysterically. We hunched over, clutching our stomachs and gasping for breath. It was as though we had been told the funniest joke in the history of the world that, for safety reasons, had not been revealed until now. We were laughing because the idea was so stupid and obvious and we had finally hit rock-bottom and were full advertising whores. "Ninety seconds," I said, finally catching my breath.
"Damn, we're fast." She blotted her eyes with a tissue.
"Let's go to a movie," I said.
"Okay," she said. And then, "What's today? Tuesday?"
"Yeah," I said.
"Okay, so then what do you think? We'll show the account people ideas on Thursday?"
"No," I said. "We'll tell them on Thursday that we're close but need the weekend."
"Okay, that's good. We'll show them Monday."
"Yeah. But we should have a couple of other ideas that they can kill."
She said, "Exactly."
Just then, one of the account executives came into our office. "Hey, you guys." Then he smirked. "Why are your faces red? What, do you have a suntan lamp in here or something?"
"Nothing," Ann said. "So what's going on?"
"I just spoke with the client. And he said they'd like you to tour the factory."
The pleasant, professional expressions on our faces froze in place. Touring a client's factory was akin to spending the afternoon with the parents of the world's ugliest baby and being forced to endure eight hours of home movies.
"Really?" I asked. "Because I don't know that we really need to see the manufacturing process. I think it's a pretty straightforward brief."
The account executive said, "Well, technically we don't have a strategy yet, so you have nothing to execute against. So the thinking is, we'll tour the factory tomorrow. Then we'll create an advertising strategy by Thursday. Client will sign off on Monday. And you guys will then work and have things for Wednesday."
I pointed out that this gave us two days to create the advertising.
"Yeah," he acknowledged. "I know, the timing kind of sucks."
But we all knew it didn't really matter. Because we'd start working immediately and wouldn't even glance at their strategy. We all knew that there would only be so many ways to skin this mint cat.
The Junior Mints factory was in Cambridge, just outside Boston. Home of Harvard University and M.I.T.
Our client met us at the front door of the huge building. "It's really nice that you could come. I think you'll find it very helpful."
We smiled and agreed that it would be very helpful indeed.
But once we got onto the actual factory floor, it became immediately clear that a "factory" campaign was not to be in Junior Mints' future. Sometimes, if a company has a particularly unique factory, it's interesting to show the inner workings. Like, if a car is truly handcrafted, you might want to show the craftspeople stitching the leather. Often, when all else has failed, a creative team can present a "factory campaign" to a client and it will be bought, simply because it features so much footage of the product and often many of the actual employees.
But the Junior Mints factory appeared to me to have been created in the 1940s and was, miraculously and mysteriously, still continuing to chug out the minty pellets. Gigantic machines, presses, mixers, and conveyer belts that should have malfunctioned and died decades ago continued to manufacture the delicious treats.
As the client led us through the various areas of construction, my eyes watered from the overpowering mint concentrate that permeated the air and nearly made my skin bubble into blisters.
It was mint hell.
And any moment, my eyes and ears would begin to bleed.
Nonetheless, it was mildly interesting to learn exactly how they got that minty cream into a chocolate shell-ball.
The mint part, it turned out, was not somehow injected into the chocolate, but was formed as a round white marble. A hard marble. Then the marble was placed into a mixer and sprayed with chocolate. Then these pellets were thrown into a gigantic cement mixer tumbler thing where they were polished. Enzymes in the mint marble denatured over time and made the center soft and creamy.
But if you bit into a factory-fresh Junior Mint, one fresh from the tumbler, you could actually lose a crown.
To amuse ourselves, we checked the floors for signs of rat hairs, broken teeth, fingernails. But we found nothing. The factory, although apparently ancient, was tediously spotless.
The next day, we saw two movies back to back. Then we popped into the office to check voice mail. At four, we left the office for the day.
The day after this, we drew storyboards for our concept. I also created another concept based on the aroma of mint and chocolate together. These commercials featured a woman "like Jessica Lange" speaking to the camera, talking about how she loves the aroma of mint and chocolate. She says that after she's finished a package of Junior Mints, the "fumes" that remain in the box make her hungry for more ("So she successfully crosses the mint threshold").
We created this campaign just so somebody could kill it. It was born to die for a greater cause, like Sylvia Plath.
We did nothing the rest of the week, nor Monday and Tuesday of the next. Then we presented on Wednesday and the account executive pronounced we had "nailed it."
The account team spent more time discussing why our campaign was so smart than we had spent conceiving it.
And then a few days later, we presented it to the Junior Mints client.
* * *
With a campaign for Junior Mints, based on using words that end with "mint," there's not much to explain. Especially when the type used in the commercial matches, exactly, the Junior Mints logo. Hammer to head.
And yet, the client was perplexed.
In total, we took him through the storyboard six times. And each time, I read the script slower and slower until I at last felt I was giving street directions to a dog.
"So. Then. You. Will. Have. These. Words. Come. On. The. TV. Screen. When. We. See. The. Scene. Is. That. Correct?"
I looked him in the eyes and I said, "Yes."
And he said, "But. When. Will. We. See. The. Mints?"
And I said, "Within. The. Context. Of. The. Scene."
And he said, "Within. The. Context?"
And I knew I'd blown it. One should never use words like context when speaking to a client responsible for a product that costs less than a dollar.
After the presentation, the client stared at the boards, all fanned out on the table in front of him. He scratched his head. He pondered the meaning of a picture showing a woman reaching into the glove compartment of her car and pulling out a box of Junior Mints, the word "refresh ... mint" printed below the picture.
I said, "It's refreshing. Because she's in a convertible. And that's refreshing because of the wind. And it's refreshing because of Junior Mints. Because of the mint. People think mint is refreshing. And then we tie it to Junior Mints by using the mints part of the Junior Mints name."
After a few moments of silence, where the account executives all exchanged doubtful glances, the client spoke up. "Oh!" he said. "Okay."
And just like that, he got it.
But then: a problem. As always happens.
"But would the convertible be red, like you've drawn it here?"
Ann answered this question. "It doesn't have to be. I just made it red because, well. No. It can be any color."
"Could it be white? Like the box?"
I said, "Yeah. It can be white."
I hated him now.
Then he said, "When does she bite the mint?"
Ann and I looked at each other, very quickly. Communicating through our well-honed advertising telepathy. We hadn't actually imagined that anybody would ever eat the product. In our minds, everybody in our commercial had reached their mint threshold a long, long time ago.
"She could bite the mint at the end," Ann said.
This made the account team smile. One of them chimed in. "Right at the end, for emphasis. Like an exclamation point at the end of the spot."
The client, though, wasn't buying it. "Well. Why couldn't she bite the mint at the beginning? So we get the product in there sooner?"
I remained quiet for a moment because I could not risk opening my mouth and having "Now, listen here you stupid motherfucker" come out.
"I think it's best," I said, "if each person bites the mint at the end. Because if they bite the mint before we bring on the '... mint' word, we lose the point. And if we bring the '... mint' word on too soon, before the action gets a chance to play out a little, we haven't established the concept. And I think viewers will get lost."
"That's a good point," the account person said. "I agree with that. So everybody will bite the mint at the end of the scene." He made a note on his legal pad. This note would later that day be typed by a secretary and delivered to everyone's desk with CONFERENCE REPORT stamped on top. Along with CONFIDENTIAL in bright red.
The client had another idea. "Do we even need the car? Couldn't we just have the people standing somewhere? Maybe in a grocery store, in front of a display of Junior Mints? And then we could super those '... mint' words as they ate the mints?"
As diplomatically as possible I said, "Seeing many different people eating Junior Mints inside of a supermarket is not going to be very interesting to people."
And the client looked at me as though I had just told him that his deformed, four-eyed child was deformed and had four eyes. "Well, why not? Why wouldn't that be interesting? I think it would be very ... motivating."
I wondered if he'd earned an MBA just so he could say the word motivating at this very meeting.
"Well," I said. "I think if you step outside of the Junior Mints shoes, and you then step into the shoes of the average consumer, who is home with her two children, with a meal to prepare, with career obligations in the back of her mind, with a husband, I think you'll appreciate that consumers are not waiting impatiently for the next Junior Mints commercial to come on the air. And because there is not much interest, we have to earn their interest. By entertaining them, however mildly. Which is why we have those cute little scenes. And the small bit of cleverness with the '... mint' words."
The client became defensive. "Well, I do think people are waiting to see some ads for Junior Mints. I disagree entirely. We don't have a presence on television. So when somebody sees the Junior Mints brand name flashed on the screen for a good fifteen seconds, you can be sure that's going to get a lot of attention. Yes. That's going to get talked about. Because people just don't expect Junior Mints to be advertising on television. They are used to encountering the product in a movie theatre. Not when they're home, relaxing and watching some television shows. Seeing Junior Mints like that, in the context of relaxing and watching some good shows, that's what will make people want to have a Junior Mint. Not seeing somebody in a convertible open up a glove compartment or seeing all this complicated typography on the screen."
It was at that moment I finally reached my mint threshold.
And thankfully, the account executives stepped forward to take over. They said the words most soothing to a client: "That's a testable proposition. We produce some test spots and put them in front of consumers. Get a handle on how consumers really feel about the advertising."
This translates to: We could make a cartoon version of the commercial and then pay people in sandwiches and cookies and diet soda to watch the cartoon and tell us if they like it or hate it, and if they like it, we can then turn the cartoon into a real commercial, and if they hate it, we can start over.
All of this would cost many, many tens of thousands of dollars and consume months of our time.
But the client nodded. Yes, the client thought, this is good. We will produce a test spot, and then study it as though it is a silver box that has arrived from space.
The client was not happy, but the client was now calm.
I was silent.
The account executive to my left passed me a note. I opened it and glanced at the text: Never have so many worked so hard for so little.
Excerpted from Take Five: Four Favorite Essays Plus One Never-Before-Seen Essay by Augusten Burroughs. Copyright © 2011 Augusten Inc.. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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