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Review: Commercials For Sci Fi

Reidy, C. (1997, June 29). Mullen Advertisers Pour Half a Year of Their Lives into Half-Minute Commercials for Sci-fi Channel. The Boston Globe, pp. E1,7.


(Download Mullen Advertisers overview as a PDF)

Sci-Fi cable TV channel had 45 million subscribers in June of 1997. It runs science fiction classics like “Twilight Zone” and new programming. Because of a negative perception among mainstream viewers that Sci-Fi is just for geeks, the channel set out to develop a new image and attract new viewers.

The writer of this article reminds us that “investing huge sums in slick TV commercials today is a bigger gamble than investing in TV shows and major motion pictures, because the results are largely unmeasurable. No one can be sure that increases in sales or subscribers are due to an ad campaign or not.”

After the channel announced it was seeking new marketing ideas, six ad agencies-including Mullen, of Wenham, Massachusetts-competed for the account. Upon chasing the Sci-Fi account, Mullen’s chief creative officer, Paul Silverman, and a dozen colleagues began investigating the world of science fiction. They logged nearly four months of on-and-off and increasingly intense preparations, conducting focus groups, interviewing psychologists and science fiction authors, and watching old sci-fi movies. Silverman even dispatched a staffer to the Star Trek convention in Michigan to search for inspiration. “We just immersed ourselves in the movies of David Lynch and the Coen brothers. We bought all the books and magazines on science fiction we could find.”

Recruited for the focus groups were three types of people: sci-fi devotees, casual fans, and “mainstreamers.” Some 100 people were paid $50.00 each. Two hundred dollars was given to the favorite charities of the 20 experts interviewed.

Four rough-cut prototypes were created.

Viewed through a window, an indistinct figure trudges down a snowy hillside, Chernobyl smokestacks in the distance. After a few seconds, the word “winter” appears on the TV screen, then the word “nuclear” forming the phrase “nuclear winter.”

In a second clip, a man drags a bag of trash to the curb, and as he does the word “dead” appears on the screen, then the word “leaves,” forming the phrase “dead leaves.” Still another, shows a pleasant looking woman pushing a vacuum cleaner around the room until she suddenly appears robotic. The word “Droid” appears and then “Aunt” reading “Aunt Droid.”

Now the agency needed a tag line. They began simply with the word, “Watch.” Silverman wasn’t satisfied:

‘ “Watch” spoke only to the dark side. It was much too paranoid. We needed something that spoke to both sides, to both fear and awe.’

Their solution was “Ever Wonder,” and they believe this tag line won them the account over the five other agencies. Now the Mullen agency needed a director to produce the final 30-second commercials. For this important task they turned to director David Lynch, who had produced “eerie Hollywood films such as ‘Blue Velvet’ and ‘Wild at Heart’ ” along with the “spooky television series, ‘Twin Peaks.’ “

In late April, five members of the Mullen team flew to California to join Lynch. According to Silverman:

Film is a highly ” ‘inefficient medium. You need all the grips and gaffers and trucks, props and wardrobes…just like real film. Everything has to be lit right, and directed right, and shot from the right angles. There are sets and props and a cast of thousands-just to do a split second of shooting…Lynch is a master of detail; everything has to be just right.’ “

The writer of this article concludes:

Three days of shooting were followed by three weeks of editing and post-production work. Earlier this month, “Nuclear Winter” and one other spot began airing on USA Networks, with plans to buy air time on regional TV markets later this summer.

Dean Borgman
© 2018 CYS

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