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Big screen exposure for Real Danger campaign

Man with a rat in his mouth You know that ad where a guy pulls a rat out of his mouth after swallowing counterfeit medicine? Well, we almost didn't present that concept. The idea just seemed far too audacious for a new business pitch. The script was undoubtedly strong, but making it would demand an enormous amount of client trust. We felt it was trust that we'd yet to earn. However, we decided that the idea was so hard-hitting that they would either love it or hate it. So we took the Pfizer team through the idea frame by gut-wrenching frame. Do you know what? They loved it.

What they saw was an idea that promised to do something that most advertising doesn't. It had the potential to actually change people's behaviour by showing the real dangers of purchasing counterfeit medicine from illegal websites. Pfizer told us later that it was not an easy concept to get through their organisation, but neither was it incredibly difficult. So strong was their belief that something radical needed to be done to fight back against the counterfeiters that the idea was quickly acknowledged as a powerful way to raise this issue in public.

We were delighted to get the news of our appointment, although we had no idea at the time just how talked-about this campaign would become with international media coverage and a coveted slot on the UK's 'News at Ten'.

Concept to communication
It's one thing to have a good idea, but quite another to realise it. Today, strong concepts will only get you so far. Modern consumers are so much more discerning than they were even a few years ago. Capturing their imaginations means pushing for outstanding production values to make good great. Fortunately, the simplicity and potential power of our idea attracted a number of extremely good commercials directors. After a series of meetings arranged by our TV Producer, Nigel Foster, we awarded the project to Henry Littlechild at Outsider. Henry had the vision to make a strong concept into a brilliant piece of communication, bringing together a subtle treatment that hinged on the viewer being lulled into a false sense of security. Stage quietly set, the rat would then arrive as a complete and utter shock. You can really feel that in the film direction – the ordinariness of it and the lack of music or fuss. It's just a normal guy in a normal kitchen, swallowing a pill. Yet, what follows is catastrophic and disturbing. The agency knew from the outset that, despite the simplicity of the storyboard, this was a technically ambitious production.

Effects expertise
Unsurprisingly, there was a distinct shortage of actors prepared to swallow and regurgitate a real rodent, so it was inevitable that Henry would need to recruit special effects experts into the project. It is testimony to the quality of the idea that he was able to attract one of the film and advertising industry's brightest talents. Post-production experts, The Mill, have a list of credits that roll on endlessly and include an Oscar for their outstanding work on the feature film, Gladiator. Together with Henry, they worked out how to create the impression that a dead rat really was being pulled out of the man's mouth. This challenge was made more difficult by the fact that the commercial was to run only in cinemas. This meant that the special effects had to be seamless enough to cope with being projected onto screens eighty feet wide. The answer was a combination of model making and footage of a real rat, both of which were painstakingly blended together. The actor was required to stuff a rat-sized model with a specially made tail into his mouth and withdraw it as if it were a real animal. This demanded a very physical and sickening performance to create a persuasive piece of action. Alongside the acting, the production team built a human-sized mouth out of latex. The real rat was then drawn through this model mouth with the images then being precisely combined by The Mill in the comfort of a warm London Flame Suite.

Casting creatures
In contrast to the technical challenges, humanely sourcing the rodents proved more straightforward. The already dead animals were redirected from their intended destination as snake food and came with their very own handler – a man mountain with a crushing handshake. However, despite the almost clinical level of organisation, this was still an unpleasant and demanding job for the actor who was expected to handle the creatures for multiple takes. Everything came together during a one-day shoot at a residential address in West London. The family who had volunteered their home to our production team welcomed us enthusiastically, recoiling only slightly (and very discreetly) with the arrival of the animal handler and the rats.

Team decisions
Indeed, good humour was a hallmark of the entire project, from our initial meetings with Pfizer and the production company, right the way through the many, many hours spent getting everything perfect at The Mill. By now, dozens of people were working on our ad, each and every one of them striving to create something amazing. In the midst of this creative industry, it was pointed out more than once that the concept had remained unchanged from the original script. It was this level of support from Pfizer that made a huge difference, allowing for fast approvals and shared creative decisions.

Many clients seem to have a contact down the road who can do everything cheaper and faster. So, it was very refreshing to work with a team that understood what we do and the value of investing in world-class talent.

Commercial break
Sometimes, everything decides to go your way and you find yourself in the right place, with the right concept and the right client. Then it's just down to you not to mess up. For many involved in making it, this is the perfect ad. One of only a handful of creative gems that might be expected from a long career in this business.

The results, however, must speak for themselves. Judging by the cinema audiences throughout the UK that are being put off their popcorn, we think that we can declare this commercial a success.

It takes a brave client to make work like this. Our hope is that if Pfizer has got the guts to support big creative ideas, then others will follow. After all, if you're not making work that is forcing re-evaluation and change – and if your agencies aren't pushing you to do this – what is your advertising for?

Direct approach
It's worth considering this; many are now suggesting that Pfizer's 'Real Danger' campaign (supported by the MHRA, Men's Health Forum, Patients Association and Heart UK) may be the start of a more direct dialogue between pharmaceutical companies and the public. I don't know what Pfizer's future strategy is, but the internet has become our preferred source of information. Some of it is accurate and some is not. If I were part of a big organisation, I may well be looking at a communication plan that seeks to set the record straight.

The Author
Andrew Spurgeon is creative director at Langland

17th March 2009


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