By repositioning Dial-A-Mattress, a seemingly fly-by-night operation with B-grade commercials, as a company on the cutting edge of so-called anti-advertising, the ‘‘Always Out There’’ campaign demonstrated the importance of taking chances. Dial-A-Mattress first took a chance by hiring Dweck & Campbell in New York, a young agency with a penchant for guerilla marketing, such as spray painting brand names on Manhattan sidewalks, to handle most aspects of the makeover. Dweck, in turn, took a chance by selecting 30-year-old John O’Hagan to direct the three introductory commercials in the campaign. Hagen, a 1996 graduate of New York University Film School, had directed an award-winning documentary for his thesis but no television spots. Dweck, which had very strong creative people but no staff producer, according to 31-one-year-old producer Larry Shanet, took a further chance by hiring Shanet to produce the spots, his first freelance assignment after working for four years at Siquis Ltd. in Baltimore. This willingness to take risks culminated in a series of three 30-second television spots described as ‘‘very odd’’ and even ‘‘demented,’’ terms that translated into compliments in the contemporary advertising lexicon. Dweck mirrored the atmosphere of the commercials with oddball marketing tactics, such as advertising on carryout pizza boxes and Chinese take-home cartons. The campaign also initiated a number of changes that transformed the face that Dial-A-Mattress presented to the public, including a script for its customer service representatives to use when fielding orders over the telephone, new uniforms for its delivery people, and a redesigned company logo that was painted on the sideboards of its truck fleet.
The commercials introduced these changes by following the misadventures of two imperturbable deliverymen as they deposited mattresses in the households of customers who revealed themselves to be very strange.
‘‘Arctic Ground Squirrel’’ featured a man in a squirrel costume who intended to hibernate all winter in his basement; ‘‘Wrestlers’’ featured a husband-and-wife team re-creating the antics of pro wrestlers; and ‘‘Wannabe’’ featured a uniform freak who dressed up in a Dial-AMattress uniform. The spots generated humor by focusing on the contrast between the eccentricity of the customers and the unflappability of the deliverymen, who seemed to have seen it all.
Dweck & Campbell president Michael Dweck described his client Dial-A-Mattress succinctly: ‘‘It’s the FedEx of mattress companies.’’ More precisely, Dial-A-Mattress amounted to a marriage of a phone-order catalog company and an overnight delivery service. Customers phoned in an order to Dial-A-Mattress, and then one of the company’s delivery trucks, which were on the road 24 hours a day, arrived at the customer’s home with a choice of three mattresses to compare. The ultimate resting place of the product—the customer’s own bedroom—thus served, quite appropriately, as the showroom. In 1999 an article in Advertising Age pointed out that ‘‘prior to [the ‘Always Out There’] campaign, Dial-AMattress was known in the New York area for painfully bad TV spots.’’ In fact, the constraints of advertising budgets across the bedding category created a genre of advertising so uniformly awful that it generated a subgenre of ads that parodied the stereotypical bedding commercials. So Dial-A-Mattress was well positioned to use parody in its advertising, provided it could find an agency attuned to the subtleties of irony but willing to work on a low-budget, regional account.
Dweck & Campbell fit the bill perfectly—the start-up shop’s first account in 1992 revitalized New Jersey-based Giant Carpet with a series of 30-second commercials, aired on Saturday Night Live, that cost about $1,000 each to produce. Mining the same vein of presidential mockery as SNL cast member Dana Carvey’s impersonation of George Bush, the commercials recast the cut-rate carpet retailer from cheesy to hip. By 1997 the agency, founded by Dweck and vice president/ creative director Lori Campbell, collected billings estimated at $20million from clients such as Pepsi, TimeWarner, and Seagram’s. Servicing these staid names earned Dweck inflated clout and budgets, but the shop maintained its cutting-edge reputation by continuing to take risks. After seeing the story boards for the Dial-A-Mattress campaign, about 150 directors sent in reels from respected companies such as bicoastal Harmony Pictures and the bicoastal/international firm Propaganda. From these Dweck chose O’Hagan on the endorsement of Bryan Buckley, a partner at Hungry Man production company, which was in the process of signing the young director. Buckley backed the rookie by agreeing to codirect the spots; while Buckley showed up on the sets daily, he allowed the young director to take the reins of the production. Even without Buckley’s recommendation, O’Hagan’s work spoke for itself, as his student film Wonderland, which documented the eccentric inhabitants of Levittown, New York, had won the 1997 Cable Ace Award as well as a nomination for O’Hagan as the best director at the DGA Awards.
O’Hagan, a Brown University graduate who was born in Dublin, Ireland, but grew up in a Maryland suburb of Washington, D.C., listed photographers Diane Arbus, Robert Frank, and Bill Owens as well as fiction-writer Flannery O’Connor as his prime artistic influences. ‘‘They all have a way of capturing the absurd and the poetic in the everyday,’’ O’Hagan said in an article by Scott Jones in a 1998 issue of Shoot. Dweck sought a director who could similarly capture the absurd and the poetic in the everyday, hence the choice to chance a newcomer. O’Hagan captured the absurdity of the everyday by allowing his actors enough room to spontaneously create genuine moments where they were guided less by the script or the director’s instructions than by their own intuition of the natural flow of the situation. ‘‘I don’t tell [the actors] how they have to say it or that they have to hit all the words on the line,’’ O’Hagan commented in Jones’s article. ‘‘They can put their spin on it, direct it, keeping it as real and spontaneous as possible.’’ The key was to get his actors ‘‘to a place where they try things, where they aren’t just saying things they think you want them to say,’’ O’Hagan continued.
Consumers in the regional area targeted by Dial-AMattress were familiar with the name of the company, but they were not aware of its unique selling process. ‘‘With Dial-A-Mattress, we did studies and found out that people who didn’t buy from them knew the company well—through 10 years of advertising—but didn’t know where the mattresses came from,’’ said Dweck in a 1998 Shoot article by Richard Linnett. ‘‘They didn’t see any outlets, no salesmen,’’ he continued. Part of Dweck’s challenge consisted of educating the consumers about the process, so the commercials portrayed it, focusing on the deliverymen who visited customers’ homes with the products. The spots also featured exaggerated versions of the target audience. By depicting customers who were unusual, Dial-A-Mattress identified its customers as individualistic. By exaggerating the quirkiness of the portrayals, the spots set consumers’ minds at ease by assuring them that the deliverymen would not consider them weird, as they had probably seen even stranger behavior.
The ‘‘Always Out There’’ campaign was a direct reaction to a decline in sales at Dial-A-Mattress as a result of increased competition from Sleepy’s, another regional bedding retailer that followed the traditional strategy of wooing customers into showrooms. Dial-A-Mattress also competed against department stores, which maintained showroom displays that captured the attention of customers who were not even shopping specifically for bedding. Dial-A-Mattress distinguished itself, however, as the only retailer that delivered the bed to its future setting as a part of the selling process, allowing for a purchasing experience tailored to the individual.
Dweck & Campbell took on the responsibility for a complete overhaul of Dial-A-Mattress with the understanding that greater visibility with a revamped image would require changes in the company itself. Market research revealed that consumers were wary of a retailer with no showroom and no tangible structure upon which to pin an image. ‘‘We had to build trust,’’ recounted Dweck in Linnett’s article. ‘‘So we said, let’s redesign the trust. What [Dial-A-Mattress operators] say when customers call, how they say it, how [customers are] treated after the purchase—we’ll control that whole cycle. And then there’s radio ads, there’s outdoor; we’re creating wardrobe, too, [and] we designed their uniforms.’’ The ‘‘Wannabe’’ spot highlighted the new uniforms, as the commercial centered around a customer with a uniform fetish. In an odd twist, the customer greeted the deliverymen dressed exactly as they were, and the wanna-be joined them in unloading the mattress. While displaying the screwball humor of the other ads in the campaign, this spot also paved the way for the shift to new uniforms. ‘‘Of course, we don’t want people to think this is a weird transition, an overnight transformation, like if the post office suddenly showed up with bright orange trucks,’’ Dweck observed. ‘‘You’d say, ‘What’s up? What’d you do with my mail?’ We want to make the transition nice and smooth, but fast, too.’’ Dweck & Campbell used existing ad space as well to support the transition. Dial-A-Mattress maintained a fleet of ‘‘50 trucks that are always out there,’’ Campbell pointed out. ‘‘So we are using them as billboards and a way of introducing their new logo—‘Always Out There.’ ’’ The new logo highlighted not only the pervasiveness of Dial-A-Mattress delivery trucks and the availability of its telephone operators but also the ‘‘out there’’ quirkiness of the new campaign and the company’s attitude more generally. The two other spots accentuated this message. ‘‘Wrestlers’’ featured a suburban couple garbed in outlandish wrestling outfits. ‘‘Honey, it’s here,’’ the husband announced as the deliverymen appeared with the mattress. The wife proceeded to pin her husband on the mat and then kick him in the groin. ‘‘What’s wrong?’’ she inquired lovingly, before continuing to thrash him. The two deliverymen shrugged off the couple’s actions as commonplace, everyday behavior. ‘‘Arctic Ground Squirrel’’ exaggerated the absurdity of the situation. In this spot, a man greeted the deliverymen in a squirrel costume, acting out his identification with the rodent who wanted to hibernate, although he had not yet been able to do so because he was too busy cleaning the gutters and roof. The costumed man escorted the deliverymen to his den in the basement and informed them that ‘‘Anybody with half a brain knows an Arctic ground squirrel is down by now.’’ The spot hinted at the reason behind his desire to burrow into the ground when his wife upstairs began loudly berating him through basement ceiling. The man tried to enlist the sympathy of the deliverymen, but all they offered was a clipboard to sign for his delivery. The impassive demeanor of the deliverymen provided both the humor and the sales pitch: these guys did not deliver therapy or interpretation or even reaction—all they delivered were mattresses.
Dweck & Campbell believed in the maxim that word-ofmouth advertising worked best of all. So they targeted their advertising at triggering discussion from its audience. It pleased O’Hagan to overhear random strangers quoting his spots, confirming that the commercial had made a memorable impression on them. ‘‘Right after [‘Arctic Ground Squirrel’] came out, I overheard some guys on the subway telling each other to ‘Shut your piehole!’ ’’ O’Hagan recalled in Jones’s article in Shoot. ‘‘It felt good to do something that people were responding to,’’ he continued. O’Hagan designed his films to elicit responses from his audience by leaving them open to interpretation, by not spelling out the meaning of his message: ‘‘If you’re just shoving things down people’s throats, there’s nothing for them to talk about . . . I like to give the audience more credit than that. People do pick up on the subtleties. They enjoy them.’’ The ‘‘Always Out There’’ campaign generated much talk value in these terms.
Shoot magazine’s Linnett called the ‘‘Arctic Ground Squirrel’’ spot ‘‘magnificently absurd.’’ He expressed reservations about the ‘‘Wrestlers’’ spot after viewing a rough cut at MacKenzie Cutler, a postproduction boutique in the revitalized Flatiron district of Manhattan, where Dave Coza edited the films. ‘‘Although it’s a funny concept, the piece at this stage begs less fight and more personality,’’ stated Linnett. The addition of the wife’s fleeting concern for her husband injected personality into the spot. ‘‘That one plaintive moment captures her character and gives the entire spot a sense of texture and personality,’’ Linnett pronounced.
Advertising Age, in its May 31, 1999, ad review, called the ‘‘Arctic Ground Squirrel’’ spot a success. ‘‘The unexpected nature of the spot and others in the campaign, along with the genuinely funny executions, helped drive Dial sales up significantly.’’ ‘‘Arctic Ground Squirrel’’ won a coveted Gold Lion in the retail category at the 1998 Cannes International Advertising Festival. A year later the spot picked up a Gold Clio in the Home Furnishings/Appliances category and a bronze medal in the Consumer Television under $50,000 Budget category at the twenty-third annual One Show Awards held in New York City’s Lincoln Center. In August 1998, however, Dweck & Campbell resigned the $5 million account, even though the agency was producing award-winning work on the campaign. Dweck explained in an article in Advertising Age that ‘‘philosophical differences over direction’’ forced him to resign the account. Although the ‘‘Always Out There’’ campaign was short-lived, it gained attention from the critical community of the advertising field as well as the attention of everyday consumers.