A phone rings inside a crisis center. The caller is desperate, and needs a solution-fast. Tensions are high as the counsellor tries to respond to the emergency. The comedy of the situation hits when the TV viewer realizes that the caller is a cartoon character and the remedy, from spinning your legs very fast to disguising yourself as a woman, comes from the wacky world of toons.
‘Cartoon Crisis Center,’ Cartoon Network’s highly original 1998 image campaign, took its direction from the channel’s 1997 branding pool. In ‘The Toons Are Taking Over,’ two detectives investigated reports of unusual sightings, which turned out to be from toon land. ‘We noticed that people thought about us a lot differently right after [the campaign],’ says Michael Ouweleen, senior VP and creative director of on-air at Cartoon Network. ‘It really reframed people’s expectations of what it meant for us to own cartoons and to be about cartoons.’
In mid-1997, the channel’s marketing department, headed by Craig McAnsh, senior VP of marketing, began eyeing early 1998 for a new campaign launch. ‘Coming right out at the beginning of the year is a great time for us to kick off an image campaign,’ says McAnsh. The winter months are a high viewing period, and ‘[an image campaign] helps the network overall define its tone and compass for the coming year.’
The small in-house team wanted the 1998 campaign to take all things cartoon-ish to the next level. ‘The detective campaign was a guerilla effort-we’re taking over the world,’ says Ouweleen. ‘This year, it was ownership of cartoons and their traditions, their vernacular, their physics, their laws, their rules, their aesthetics.’ The concept would need to appeal not only to Cartoon Network’s primary audience of kids, but to viewers of all ages.
As the next step, the team suggested about 60 tag lines. Of the two that stood out as winners-’Cartoon Network. Cartoon Rules’ and ‘Cartoon Network. We Are Cartoons’-the first came out on top.
As soon as McAnsh’s brief received the go-ahead from Cartoon Net execs in late 1997, Ouweleen conceived four concepts the following weekend. The concepts, all playing with the laws of cartoons, were: a boot camp training attendees about cartoons; a don’t-try-this-at-home approach with real people testing cartoon stunts; a people-who-don’t-get-cartoons premise, featuring, for example, a boardroom discussion pondering how Fred Flintstone’s car runs without gas; and a cartoon crisis center. The first was shelved due to its similarity to a recently released music video about how to be a rock star, the second seemed too dry, and of the remaining two, the team liked the latter best.
Even the best ideas sometimes need tweaking. Ouweleen changed the tag line to ‘Screwy, Ain’t It?’ after shooting had begun. The new tag line was a better fit because it’s an entre-nous cartoon tradition, says Ouweleen, essentially from Tex Avery cartoons-for example, a character opens a door, only to find a brick wall on the other side, then pulls a sign from behind his back with a remark such as ‘Screwy, Ain’t It?’ scrawled upon it.
The spots also seemed flat in places in terms of comedy, and too difficult for the viewer to understand what was happening at the other end of the phone. The team considered whether to add scenes of the cartoon callers, but agreed that this would give the joke away too early. Instead, they decided to add short snippets in the caller’s voice, supported with clips from cartoons at the end of the spots showing the moment at the heart of each crisis.
The campaign had a production budget of US$500,000 for five individual spots, which were then cut into 60-, 30-, 23- and 15-second versions. This is at the ‘top end of what we usually spend,’ says Ouweleen, and McAnsh adds that campaigns for new series launches and network image campaigns garner the largest budgets.
Counsellor: ‘Gotta guy who needs to hide, fast!
Let’s move! Alright!’
Cartoon character (over phone): ‘Heeeelp! You gotta hurry!’ Counsellor: ‘Sir, you’ve gotta
stop screaming. Now, listen,
I need you to look around.
‘Is there a rock, a building, a car, anything to hide behind there, sir?’
Cartoon character (over phone): (unintelligible)
Computer guy: ‘What’s he got?’
Counsellor: ‘One skinny tree.’Cartoon character (over phone): ‘Heeeelp!’
Counsellor: ‘We are going to get you out of there. You hold on. . . .
‘Now, sir, for this to work, you’re gonna have to tippy-toe behind that tree. . .
‘and you will disappear.’
The room explodes in celebration as the test woman gives a thumbs-up.
Cartoon character: ‘Screwy, Ain’t It?’