July 8, 2005
Minneapolis, Minn. — Whiplash is a 19-year-old Capuchin monkey from Texas. He saddles up on a border collie, wears a sombrero, and rides to the rescue bearing Mexican fast-food.
Of course, there's a decent chance you already know this. For the Minneapolis-based Kerker ad agency, Whiplash is that holy grail of television advertising: A repeat character that clicks with the public. He's been a ticket to financial success and industry honors since Kerker cast him in his first commercial for them early last year.
In the first ad, "The Burrito Incident," a man walks into a mailbox, dropping his burrito on the pavement. Whiplash, sensing trouble, picks up a replacement at Taco John's and -- on the back on Ben the dog -- dashes over fields and streets to the diner in distress.
The 10th and 11th ads in the Whiplash series began airing this week. Despite all the sequels, Kerker sees no need to retire the monkey any time soon, nor does Taco John's. The Wyoming-based company says its 11 percent sales growth in the past year is the best in its 30-year history.
Kerker Creative Director Chris Preston says the ads keep working because they place a memorable, admittedly ridiculous character in a familiar format. "Much like the Lone Ranger serials or the Green Hornet, they all have a classic Americana genre kind of feel of the imperiled heroine in that case, but the imperiled food in this case," he says. "And doing that classic story again and again with different variations is really part of the challenge in this campaign and the fun."
In early April, the Whiplash team gathered in a conference room to move ahead with the latest variation, tentatively titled "Burrito Rider." Copywriter Terry Thomas first spotted Whiplash as a side-act in a traveling rodeo. Thomas takes his bosses through the storyboard for the latest Whiplash adventure: "We open with the woman on the scooter, and she's got the grilled burrito in her hand. As she's about to raise this burrito up and take a bite out of it, the scooter hits a bump of some sort. And because this burrito is in a sleeve, that's a perfect opportunity for it to pop out on this bump, it pops out..."
Preston jumps in to ask, "How do you see the bounce happening? Is it going to be big enough naturally to bounce a burrito out of her hand? I think it's going to be tough not to make that look fake."
The discussion moves from one surreal logistical issue to the next: How do you film a burrito lying in the street and not make it unappetizing? Which Taco John's food will look best hovering in the sky as a backdrop for the monkey and dog galloping to the rescue?
Preston says people like Terry Thomas and Karl Madcharo, the art director on the Whiplash spots, need to leave some inhibitions behind to take these issues seriously. "You talk about most adults not being willing to sit and talk about burritos in the sky -- I think one of the magic things about really great creative people is that they have an ability to look at things with almost a childlike wonder. Commercials have been around for a lot of years now, and thinking of original ideas does take a childlike perspective sometimes."
Often the best ads take on a life of their own -- begetting more free advertising along the way. Whiplash made the local news in Kansas City when some kids swiped a cardboard cut-out from a Taco John's. "About a week ago, Whiplash was stolen," the somber TV reporter reported from the scene of the crime. "Now, the staff here doesn't want to get anybody in big trouble. They just want their favorite monkey back."
A week or so after the storyboard meeting, Madcharo and Thomas are getting ready to hunker down for the day with a pile of DVDs and videotapes. The director hired to shoot the commercial has sent these up from Dallas, where the spot will ultimately be filmed.
"What we're going to do today is look at the first round of casting," Thomas says. "We've got 20 women to look at for a particular role: the role of 'woman on the scooter.'"
Sitting backward on a chair, to simulate riding a scooter, the women one after another deliver a basic line: "Grilled chicken, potato oles, nacho cheese ("nacho" would later be changed to "cheddar" for the actual ad), this burrito looks incredible....Noooooo!"
This last moment is when the burrito slips from her grasp. It's meant to be over the top, and eager young actresses let it all hang out. Thomas, Madcharo, and the commercial's producer, Anne Swarts, chuckle at the performances and make notes.
"Every time we look at these (casting tapes) we think the spot's going to be horrible -- 'Oh, the spot's going to suck!'" Madcharo says. "But they actually turn out halfway decent."
The three of them move quickly through the auditions, making fast observations like, "too old," "over-tweezed," and "she's a model, not an actress." They say there's a reason for the brutal efficiency of the process.
"I think there's a certain character to the people that we cast," says Swarts. "That gold-standard has been set and we're trying to find it."
"I'd hate to be on the other side, with people telling me, 'Ah, too fat!'" adds Madcharo.
"It would be really brutal for talent to actually sit and watch people watch audition tapes," says Thomas. "I mean, (we) have to make decisions quick. You have 70 people to go through. You don't have the luxury of considering whether they were on that day or off that day. All you've got is that minute on TV and you have to make your call pretty quick."
The three of them mark the names of actresses they'd like to give a second chance. That means a call-back the next week in Dallas, where the next step in this process takes place. Burrito Rider is cast and shot during the first week in May, along with a commercial for a spicy chicken sandwich that is intended for more limited broadcast.
A week later, Terry and Karl are back in Minneapolis to edit the footage. "The shoot went very well," Thomas says. "We lucked out and we got good weather. It stopped raining about a half-hour before we started shooting and started raining again when we were finishing our last scene."
And the monkey?
"He did his thing, as he always does. He rode well. He didn't take a swipe at any of the talent."
There's a rule for working with Whiplash: No eye contact, or he's likely to, well, lash out. On the first day of the first ever Whiplash shoot, the boy playing the Taco John's employee took three claws to the cheek. Now everyone knows Whiplash is safe as long as you give him his space.
In Dallas, the role of "woman on scooter" was cast with an actress who had the right look and ability to convey genuine dismay about a dropped burrito.
In the edit studio, a video editor tweaks milliseconds here or there to optimize the telling of the story inside of 30 seconds. If it seems like perfectionism, art director Karl Madcharo knows just how delicate the process needs to be.
"People don't have a lot of time -- especially now they can change the channel, Tivo, or they're doing other stuff," he says. "Hopefully with just two or three seconds, you grab them quick enough, they see the opening and they'll watch it."
Is he frightened by Tivo and what it means for the industry?
"No. There's some talk in the industry about it, but I don't know what you can do about it."
Thomas agrees. "The whole Tivo thing, I think it's probably a little blown out of proportion," he says. "Still the most interesting thing on TV can be the commercials, often."
In an age when people can record TV and skip the ads, they say more than ever commercials have to be somehow fun, fascinating or oddball. With the new Taco John's ads hitting the air this week, they're hoping Whiplash the Cowboy Monkey continues to make the cut.
(Note: Whiplash sound at start of story audio from Beef & Pie Productions).