By MARK BLANKENSHIP, Director of Integrated Content, AKA NYC
I was having such a good time at Skittles Commercial: The Broadway Musical that I barely noticed the show’s rage. But several days after I saw the show’s one and only performance (at Town Hall on February 3), it’s the impassioned fury that sticks.
Let’s start with the fun. Rather than spend millions of dollars on a Super Bowl ad, Skittles (and its agency DDB) decided to mount a fully produced musical instead, with all proceeds benefitting Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. From the moment this project was announced, it was clearly a gimmick with artistic ambitions. The book of Skittles Commercial was co-written by Will Eno, a Pulitzer Prize-nominated playwright with a flair for existential comedy, and the director was Sarah Benson, who seems to helm at least one downtown sensation every season. These artists’ off-kilter sensibility matches the tone of Skittles’ own surreal ads, and their involvement signaled the brand had taste.
The creative team made good. Led by Michael C. Hall, the cast delivered thirty minutes of funny jokes and charming songs that satirized the frustrating ubiquity of advertising. (The score was composed by Drew Gasparini, with lyrics and additional book material by Nathaniel Lawlor).
There was even something of a story: The show was set in a Manhattan bodega, where Michael C. Hall, dressed in a cat suit, loitered during a rehearsal break for a Skittles-themed musical. This led to everything from photo ops with bodega shoppers to debates about consumer culture.
This was heady stuff, and it only got more self-referential when planted audience members jumped up to shout how bored they were and how commercials made them mad. But the interruptions and digressions worked because they were witty and clear. When you can generally follow what’s happening, madcap experiments are delicious.
In fact, by the time the entire cast was on stage to sing the insanely catchy tune “Advertising Ruins Everything,” the musical had managed the remarkable feat of being an ad that succeeded as theater.
But again, Skittles Commercial wasn’t only a zany good time. In the final moments, the onstage crowd got so angry about the prevalence of advertising that they rioted in the bodega. They even killed Michael C. Hall (the character, not the actor), whose ghost returned wrapped in heavy chains. And just when it seemed he was about to shame the mob, another character saw an online report that the show we were all currently attending had sold nearly 600 bags of Skittles to the gathered audience. Sure, that was less than half the people in the theater, but wasn’t it still worth celebrating? Wasn’t it worth destruction and death? Eventually, the living characters decided that, yeah, nearly 600 bags of Skittles probably did justify the chaos. Then they sang and danced until a confetti cannon showered the audience and a curtain emblazoned with the Skittles logo dropped over the stage.
It may have been delivered with razzmatazz, but that closing message was cynical and bleak, flatly stating that consumer culture is rotting our spirits faster than candy is rotting our teeth.
And Skittles, of course, paid to get this message across.
I’d say it was money well spent. Nothing makes a brand seem confident like a willingness to acknowledge its own downsides. Skittles, the musical told us, had heard our complaints and even shared them, but it still had candy to sell. That’s how the game works, and it’s not going to stop. But at least Skittles acknowledged our ability to see the game being played. At least it made some decent entertainment out of the undeniable fact of advertising.
For those of us who work in marketing, this was a fantastic reminder that when we allow ourselves to be complex, thoughtful, and even a little brash– in other words, when we allow ourselves to be more human – then we can make a remarkable connection to our customers.
This doesn’t mean every brand should release a self-aware musical: That just happened to be the perfect outlet for Skittles, which has been building its avant-garde bona fides for years through a variety of left-field campaigns. But in the personality of each project we work on, we can find an on-brand opportunity to be bracingly, surprisingly honest.
This is the philosophy we cultivate at AKA, where we’re committed to putting the entertainment in advertising in way that surprises and delights. Just like Skittles with their anti-ad, we know this approach gives our clients the chance to seem confident, cool, and cutting-edge.