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Steve Weiss Monthly Column

Behind a Great Campaign

Sonic Drive-In's television ads are a truly bright collection of work in an ad environment that lately seems devoid of focus, taste, charm, and an accessible sales message.

The television is tuned to CNBC, and Mad Money's inimitable Jim Cramer is attempting to rally the spirits of his investor audience after another lousy day in the markets. His advice to a nation hungry for a decent stock play? Buy Sonic.

Pointing to factors as diverse as the company's stock buy back program, its recent menu price increases, its Happy Hour drink promotion, and its innovative new sandwiches, Cramer proclaims Sonic a clear restaurant-category winner. He touches on all of the relevant corporate financials, even conducts an upbeat interview with Cliff Hudson, Sonic's CEO. And, of course, Cramer praises the company's ongoing national cable television advertising campaign...a truly bright collection of work in an ad environment that lately seems devoid of focus, taste, charm, and an accessible sales message.

In case you haven't seen them, the ads employ the talents of four first-rate improvisational actors paired in the front seat of a car, where they enjoy various Sonic treats and dispense witty insights into relationships and the shared joys of experiencing Sonic. According to the ads' creators, Kansas City-based Barkley Advertising, the actors are simply presented with concept/product ideas on note cards, and the resultant adlibbed dialogue, filmed without actor direction on video tape (rather than film), yields amazingly authentic-feeling. The ads have been so successful, they've earned a ton of creative awards and boosted same-store sales increases.

Certainly this is a campaign that is worth celebrating in this space. So I am taken a little aback when I contact first Barkley and then Sonic and am met with what I can only describe as a polite decline in the first case, and no response at all in the second. Even when I modify my request so as to indicate this will likely be the airiest of puff pieces (could I just interview one of the actors?), my requests are met with less than indifference.

So what gives?

Well, obviously the most honest answer to this question is that Sonic doesn't want to discuss its marketing strategy in the restaurant trade press. In a recent analyst's call, the company commented that $100 million of its 2008 $190-million ad budget is going into this cable television campaign, and that's risking a lot of tater tots. Certainly the company can be cut some slack for not wanting to be too forthcoming in front of competitors.

On the other hand, as I try to find details for this column in the absence of Sonic's corporate guidance, I stumbled on another kind of story. This one has to do with a company that relies too much on the journalistic stonewall. It is a useful cautionary tale.

The bit of knowledge I feel compelled to share with Sonic, and to those who might take a similar "No thanks" strategy with the press, has to do with the increasing popularity of the democratic media platform—the Internet. Now of course the Sonic marketing team is well aware of the Internet. In fact, at one point they even (apparently) ran a YouTube-influenced contest inviting customer efforts at the ad lib-formula commercials. But along with almost all of the original ad canon, the material has largely been purged from the public record. There are probably good (read: legal) reasons for this, but a dive into the Sonic Webiverse reveals an inordinate lack of information (other than the company's own Web site) related to marketing or employee feedback.

Now control can be a very desirable commodity if you are not kidding yourself. Quite frankly, though, the Internet just sort of makes information control impossible. Take down your creative, discourage blogger links, and create a corporate policy of omerta, and what you generally get is totally unfiltered information and the abusive rants of your most vocal detractors.

So left to my own devices, what I have learned is that there are a lot of people who apparently don't like the Sonic ads. In some cases the critiques are actually a form of flattery: "Why are you showing me these great ads when the nearest Sonic is a two-state drive away?" Less kind, though, are the techno-geeks who find the casual production values of the ads sophomoric. Worse is the considerable number of critics who interpret two guys sitting in a car as disturbingly non-heterosexual.

Now I don't know and don't care about what kind of personal life the fictional characters, or the actors who portray them—Peter Grosz, who writes for the Colbert Report; T.J. Jagodowski, who was named "best improviser" by Chicago magazine; Brian Huskey, featured in the movies Superbad and Semi-Pro; and Molly Erdman, named a "Chicagoan of the Year" by the Chicago Tribune—lead. I do know that this Second City-inspired troupe of personalities is the greatest potential PR force that any major quick-service chain has going for it. Frankly, I got more useful information and a sense of delight about Sonic's marketing from random postings in Erdman's blog, Erdmania, at www.mollyerdman.com, than I did from five years of mostly financial press releases stored on the Sonic site.

It would have been fun to interview her. Maybe if I was Jim Cramer....



Steve Weiss, a CIA graduate and veteran foodservice editor, is director of trends research with Near Bridge Consulting. Weiss can be reached at steve@qsrmagazine.com.