Human cannonball, 40 seconds of glory

Commercial: Allan Charles of Trahan, Burden & Charles Inc. used a human cannonball to create a rarity, the 40-second commercial.

January 28, 2000|By June Arney | June Arney,SUN STAFF

Ten seconds doesn't seem like a lot of time. But Allan Charles has been obsessed with it for years.

The creative director for Baltimore-based Trahan, Burden & Charles Inc., has wanted to make a commercial longer than the standard 30 seconds but less than a minute.

"We spend a lot of time editing down to 30 seconds," he said. "I always thought the perfect creative format would be 40 seconds. This gives the creative part a little time to breathe."

In NeighborCare Professional Pharmacies, a division of NeighborCare Inc., Charles found a willing client.

The commercial promoting NeighborCare's home-delivery system just began airing in the Baltimore market and is scheduled to run through June. After debuting in a 40-second format, it will be supported later with a 30-second version.

Charles said he has never heard of anyone doing a 40-second spot before. And industry experts confirm that it is uncommon at best.

"It's very unusual," said John Wolfe, a spokesman for the American Association of Advertising Agencies in New York. "I've been involved in the advertising industry since 1984, and I've never heard of one. It's very interesting from a creative point of view. It gives them an extra 10 seconds."

Not only is the format of the commercial unusual, but the content itself is edgy.

The spot stars human cannonball Davis Smith Sr. of Halfway, Mo., who is named in the "Guinness Book of World Records" for the longest distance traveled in the air as a human cannonball -- 185 feet, 10 inches.

In the commercial, two fictitious lab technicians are shown standing on a hillside discussing how they have conducted years of research and thousands of tests to perfect NeighborCare's free home-delivery service. "Studies show people don't like to leave the house when they're sick," the commercial says.

As they speak, viewers hear, then see, a third technician being shot out of a cannon. At one point, he lands atop a bale of hay, startling a cow.

"Plagued with technical problems, we had to abandon the human-direct system in favor of gas-powered vehicles," one of the lab techs explains.

Later in the spot, the lab tech has plowed headfirst into a car roof, puncturing its convertible top. "Call us, and we'll shoot your prescription right over," the spot says.

There are strategic reasons for the outlandish nature of the commercial, Charles said.

"When you do a commercial like this, you have to run it 40 or 50 percent less to get the same impact," Charles said. "The word of mouth you get when people talk about them has a tremendous impact. They're the small guys against the big chains. The others are national. They've got big budgets."

He declined to reveal the cost of creating the spot -- the fourth commercial TBC has done for NeighborCare in three years.

Late in 1997, NeighborCare started running a local television spot that featured a look-alike Austin Powers character. The character came into the pharmacy dressed in a velvet suit and frilly white cravat similar to that worn by Powers, and asked for a variety of nonmedicinal items that he was told the pharmacy didn't have. The implication was that people should shop at NeighborCare because it was a professional pharmacy.

In February 1998, not long after the commercial started airing, New Line Productions Inc., creators of Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, sued the pharmacy and TBC, which created the spot, alleging that they stole the Austin Powers character.

The case was settled later that year for an undisclosed amount.

TBC, with 115 employees and offices in Baltimore; New York; Reno, Nevada; and Washington, reports annual billings of $142 million.

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