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Slimy sales agents

They’re nasty, but they’ve got a tough job: selling products to solve problems you don’t even want to think about.

Published January 25, 2007

His name is Mr. Mucus, and he sells Mucinex decongestant.

He's a funny-looking guy, sloppy and green, decked out in a jaunty hat and suspenders. A little like Shrek on a bad day. He fronts a band of similarly weird backup dudes and dances around as if he were opening for Sinatra at the Sands.

This is no kiddie cartoon character. He is a walking, talking glob of computer-animated phlegm. His name is Mr. Mucus, and he sells Mucinex decongestant. Frequently during the TV evening news broadcasts.

He's not the only one. Afrin nasal spray offers unnamed blobs of green goo, shown closing up bank vault-style doors in a sufferer's nasal passages. Let's not forget Digger the Dermatophyte, a creepy bit of toenail fungus hawking Lamisil tablets.

Cute animated characters representing some of the most disgusting bodily afflictions you can imagine.

All during what for many people is the dinner hour.

What is going on here?

"It was immediately clear that by giving mucus a character and showing exactly where mucus is causing the problem in a humorous way, it served as a great visual," said M'lou Arnett, senior vice president of marketing at Adams Respiratory Therapeutics, makers of Mucinex and the creator of Mr. Mucus.

"There's an art to making sure that we do that in a tasteful way . . . characters like Mr. Mucus and Mrs. Mucus, and Junior Mucus," added Arnett, who said the company spent months developing the characters, testing the concept with focus groups to ensure it was entertaining. "We think they publicize the product in a lighthearted way."

Memorable images

Apparently, the path to some consumers' wallets is paved by animated characters who make your ickiest maladies cute enough to earn their own ride at Disney World.

The trend may be outrageous, but Northwestern University marketing communications pro- fessor Martin Block says it's also smart marketing. He noted that although an ad may gross you out, it's also sticking in your brain. Which is a good thing when you're at the drugstore seeking relief for some gruesome complaint.

Medicines used to be sold with soft-focus images and ambiguous language. Plenty of maladies never used to make it onto the airwaves.

To be sure, tamer ads are still out there. A recent commercial for Dulcolax stool softener shows an animated woman reclining on a wooden bench that slowly morphs into a comfortable couch, for instance.

But will you remember a comfy sofa when facing a shelf full of similar products in the drugstore?

"(As an advertiser) what could you say that's happy about these product categories, anyway?" said Block, laughing. "In an extremely cluttered advertising environment, almost any device that gets attention is good."

And the only thing worse than showing the animated affliction might be depicting the real thing.

It's the same problem manufacturers of Raid pesticides faced in the '70s. Back then, they used a series of classic animated ads showing cartoon cockroaches blown up by a spritz of Raid, communicating the bug spray's effectiveness without showing actual insects dying.

"(Consumers) don't always know why their toenails are doing something strange," said Robert J. Thomas, a professor of marketing at Georgetown University. "(These commercials) are bringing to life the problem the consumer has, so they can visualize it . . . And cartoons are in all of us. We all have a little bit of child in us, so that cartoons somehow seem not-real."

Taking a dig at Digger

The most controversial TV ad in this vein may be for Lamisil, whose Digger character was featured in a $25-million ad campaign developed four years ago by Deutsch, N.Y. Featuring Digger pushing up a toenail like a car hood, the ad shows how fungus can settle under a nail and cause discoloration or flaking.

But 27 percent of those surveyed by USA Today's Ad Track poll said they disliked the ad; just 7 percent liked it "a lot" in 2003. Users of the MSNBC Web site Test Pattern voted the Digger ad the "worst commercial currently running on American TV" in 2004.

Scott G. (yes, that's his legal name), a Los Angeles-based advertising, marketing and product branding consultant, agreed. He hates these kinds of ads so much he has written columns in trade publications urging clients not to hire the people who create them.

"Why am I offended when bodily fluids start talking in animation form? I guess . . . the cynicism of it does bother me," he said. "They will never admit (shocking people to heighten brand awareness) . . . but I react badly to it for the explicitness, the cynicism and the unnecessary shock value. And yet, every single one of those (issues) is a line you can't firmly draw."

Even Arnett drew the line at the Digger character, which she saw as mean and unnecessarily icky.

"I react badly every time I see that toenail lifted," said Arnett, who was the only marketing executive from companies selling Mucinex, Afrin and Lamisil who would speak at length on the subject.

"I've thought a lot about Digger . . . he's a little bit meaner, and he digs away at someone's toenail bed," she said. "That's different than amiable Mr. Mucus settling into his easy chair with his remote control. Even though he's a talking mucus character, we can still find him appealing."

Novartis, which makes Lamisil, sent a statement to the St. Petersburg Times noting the Digger commercial is not currently airing. "There is a high degree of unsuccessful self-treatment and home remedy use among onychomycosis sufferers," the statement said. "The Digger DTC commercials were conceived in 2003 and aired to help nail fungus sufferers learn about their condition and to inform them that their doctor would be able to counsel them on whether Lamisil Tablets would be an appropriate treatment for their nail condition."

The bottom line

Of course, the ultimate barometer of any advertisement is one the advertiser knows best: product sales.

"There's a long history of ads that are not people's favorites that have been effective . . . There are also stories of advertising (which) won awards, it's on everybody's all-time list, but the agency got fired (because) it didn't generate sales," said Northwestern University's Block. "If (advertisers) don't get the return because customers are disgusted, they'll change the advertising."

And if an icky ad pushes up product sales, it may not matter how disgusting anybody thinks it is.

Eric Deggans can be reached at or (727) 893-8521. See his blog at






[Last modified January 24, 2007, 20:57:50]

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