Sonic Drive-In Revives ‘Out of Work’ Spokesmen
WITH the unemployment rate above 8 percent, Americans are taking extreme measures to get hired — even, apparently, brand spokesmen.
T. J. Jagodowski and Peter Grosz, who starred in humorous and largely improvised ads for Sonic Drive-In from 2002 to 2010, appear in about a dozen videos uploaded to YouTube over the last few weeks.
Proclaiming to be commercials produced by the two, the videos include such mishaps as the spokesmen promoting popcorn chicken in a car overrun by live chickens.
“We want our old jobs back,” explains a Facebook page featuring the two. “Now we make our own commercial-things without permission from the man.”
A Web site features a petition for consumers to sign that demands their return. The effort culminated with a commercial that was posted to YouTube on Tuesday and which will go on the air this Monday. “Hey there, America,” Mr. Grosz begins in the ad. “You may remember us as the two guys who used to be in all those Sonic commercials.”
Mr. Jagodowski says, “But then they phased us out.”
“So we decided to go rogue and make our own commercials,” Mr. Grosz continues.
After a montage from the online videos, they triumphantly reveal they have been rehired, and the commercial closes with the screen text, “The two guys are back.”
It turns out, however, that this was not really a job-seeking effort by the spokesmen but a publicity stunt by the brand.
After Sonic decided to bring back the spokesmen, “we sort of imagined that they could pester the company to get their jobs back,” said Jeff Goodby, co-chairman and creative director of Goodby, Silverstein & Partners in San Francisco, part of the Omnicom Group, which produced the commercials and the online videos.
The spokesmen were originally cast by Barkley in Kansas City, Mo., when it was the agency of record for Sonic. They “were put away a little too early because if they stayed around they really would have come into their own in the social media context,” Mr. Goodby said.
Character-driven viral campaigns often owe much of their success to YouTube. For example, Old Spice commercials and online-only videos featuring Isaiah Mustafa have attracted nearly 200 million views.
The fictional effort of the spokesmen to get their jobs back served as a premise to set up Facebook and Twitter accounts and a YouTube channel on their behalf, and all will now be repurposed to promote the characters and Sonic.
While the job-seeking premise might strike a chord with the ranks of the unemployed, Mr. Goodby said that was not the impetus.
“It wasn’t intended to resonate in that way,” Mr. Goodby said.
But Darren Tristano, an executive vice president of Technomic, a food industry consulting and market research firm, said consumers still are apt to identify with the idea of seeking employment.
“So many Americans are underemployed or unemployed that I think that’s how we are going to relate to these guys,” Mr. Tristano said. “It may be more subliminal but it’s going to be effective.”
Originally named Top Hat Drive-In, Sonic began in Shawnee, Okla., in 1953 and now has more than 3,500 locations in 43 states.
Customers order over microphones in individual parking spaces, and carhops — typically on roller skates — deliver the food. Naturally the highest concentration of restaurants is in warmer states including Texas, and, according to the company, the busiest month tends to be May, the slowest January.
Revenues of both company- and franchised-owned restaurants totaled about $3.6 billion in 2011, which made Sonic the fourth-largest fast-food chain, behind McDonald’s, Burger King and Wendy’s.
The company spent $122.5 million on advertising in 2010 and $104.9 million in the first nine months of 2011, according to the most recent data available from the Kantar Media unit of WPP.
In late January, Sonic got an unexpected jolt of publicity when Giorgio Fareira, a folk singer, was in a car with friends when they pulled into a Sonic in Connecticut. Mr. Fareira, who was in the passenger seat and happened to have his guitar, decided on the spot to sing the order into the microphone to a good-humored Sonic employee, while a friend in the backseat with an iPhone shot a video, which she posted on YouTube.
Versions of that video drew more than two million views. (“If this music video doesn’t make you happy and hungry,” advises a post about it on the Web site Gizmodo, “you are dead inside.”) While brands occasionally disapprove of unauthorized content on YouTube, Sonic embraced Mr. Fareira, and through its public relations agency helped the singer get booked on the “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” on Feb. 14.
“We all got a big kick out of it right off the bat,” said J. Clifford Hudson, chief executive of Sonic. “Now we’re really kind of helping evolve his career a little bit further.”
As for the spokesmen, neither had expected to be returning to Sonic. Mr. Grosz previously worked as a writer for “The Colbert Report” and currently appears on NPR’s “Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me!” as a panelist. Mr. Jagodowski performs improvisational comedy frequently in Chicago.
“We both thought that it had been a really nice and enjoyable run but that it was done,” Mr. Jagodowski said.
Mr. Grosz, who said income from the commercials is primarily what paid for his home in Los Angeles, had been pleased when the previous campaign kept getting renewed year after year.
“At first it was gravy, and then it was a cherry on the top of the gravy,” said Mr. Grosz. “A lot of times, if you get paid it’s for really soul-sucking things, but I’m proud of what we’re doing with Sonic.”