Wild Pitch

Six Flags' dancer is latest in a menagerie of TV ad characters that keeps getting stranger

May 12, 2004|By Andrea K. Walker | Andrea K. Walker,SUN STAFF

He doesn't talk, wears heavy-framed glasses that cover much of his face and a bow tie with an oversized suit, the trousers yanked up above his waist. He looks to be about 100 years old but dances with the fluidity of a teen-ager.

And people love him, even though they can't figure out who, or what, he is.

He's the new commercial face for Six Flags Inc., which operates 20 theme parks across the country, including one in Largo in Prince George's County.

The character has no name but has attracted a movie star following. Hundreds of fans in search of his (her?) identity have jammed Six Flags' phone lines and debated his closely guarded secret in Internet chat rooms and on radio talk shows.

"When that guy does that crazy dance, I can't explain it, it just hits an emotional button," said Roger L. Gray, president and chief executive officer of GKV Communications, a Baltimore advertising firm. His sons, ages 7 and 9, start dancing when the commercial comes on, the ad man said.

Advertisers have concocted characters to move products for more than a century, from Tony the Tiger to Mr. Clean to Spuds MacKenzie. Creating one from scratch is often cheaper, and more manageable, than finding the right celebrity to sell something, marketers have found.

But as other forms of popular culture have gotten edgier - in music, movies and television - characters for TV commercials have become stranger.

One reason, experts surmise, is that it has become tougher to break through the noise of constant media that includes cable, Internet and traditional outlets.

Marketing professor Daniel J. Howard calls the cutting-edge ad characters "clutter cutters."

"Grabbing somebody's attention is a necessary condition," said Howard, chairman of the Edwin L. Cox School of Business at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. "There are so many ads out there that people actively avoid even looking at commercials."

Twenty years ago, Wendy's International Inc. made octogenarian Clara Peller nationally known. Her crusty catchphrase, "Where's the beef," was adopted by Democratic presidential nominee Walter F. Mondale in his 1984 campaign.

In the late 1990s, Taco Bell restaurants made a splash with a fast-talking Chihuahua. More recently, Quiznos has been using what looks like a cross between a rat and a fuzzy potato to sell its sub sandwiches. The character, called a Spongemonkey, is a British Internet creation.

"One of the basic jobs in advertising is to break through and not be ignored, and characters can very well help you accomplish that," said John DeCerchio, creative director at Doner. "They can become associated with the brand. They can differentiate the brand."

Doner, the largest independently owned ad agency in North America, created the Six Flags commercial. The Michigan firm, which maintained a major office in Baltimore until last year, created classic slogans for Maryland products such as National Bohemian beer.

Six Flags, whose parks are mostly regional attractions, took a chance on the dancing character even though it was its first national advertising campaign in seven years. A flood of reaction to the first commercial in February affirmed its decision.

"Who is that guy?" callers asked. "What's the song?" "Is he really that old?"

"It was just amazing," Six Flags spokeswoman Debbie Nauser said. "In all the time I've been at this company, we've never gotten letters and calls like the ones coming in for this spot."

In the TV commercial, the man emerges from a psychedelic Six Flags bus. With a 1998 hit, "We Like to Party" by the Latin band the Vengaboys, in the background, the man erupts into a wild dance. He then grabs families from doing yardwork and whisks them off to an amusement park. The commercial ends with the man leading a conga line and the tagline, "It's playtime."

The commercial has generated much talk, at water coolers and beyond. On a San Antonio radio show, callers debated whether the male character is really a woman in heavy makeup. A TV anchor in Dallas-Fort Worth alluded to the character when his weatherman cued up jaunty music on a recent morning show.

At Six Flags Magic Mountain in Los Angeles last month, dozens of people showed up in suits and red bow ties to emulate the character in a look-alike dance contest.

Six Flags refuses to reveal the actor's identity. Nauser, the spokeswoman, will describe him only as "our exuberant master of fun" and "our man of mystery."

"He's so funny and goofy, and it combines nicely with the music which is frenetic and crazy," said Eric J. Zanot, an associate professor in the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, College Park.

But, Zanot said of risky commercial concepts, "It's a tightrope act. They want to do it to get through the clutter, but every once in a while, one of them falls off in the wrong direction."

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