Ad Report Card: Return of the Orkin Roach Stunt

If you’ve heard nothing at all about the new Orkin roach ad, and you’re the sort of person who enjoys being fooled, then I’m afraid I have to advise you to stop reading. The spot demands attention, and there’s no way of writing about it without giving away the secret. Then again, this is the sort of stunt advertising whose “secret” is widely reported in the media before most people have a chance to see the ad. Here’s a CNN story about the spot last week, including a link to the ad itself, viewable with Windows Media Player, RealPlayer, or QuickTime.

The Ad: “This fall,” an announcer booms, “Gary Coleman is Timmy Townsend, P.I.” Sure enough, there is the diminutive former star of classic 1980s bad TV show Diff’rent Strokes. He’s decked out in a sort of cream-colored outfit, including a fedora, and mugging at the camera as the hokey Timmy Townsend logo appears. As the announcer prattles on—”He’s lookin’ for clues and bustin’ some moves”—the shadowy outline of what seems to be a roach crawls into view, apparently right across the front of your TV screen. (The effect is a lot less convincing via computer.) Coleman tumbles off the ledge where he’d been preening as Timmy Townsend, and an Orkin exterminator leans into the frame, extinguishing the “roach.” So, you see, this is no ad for a show called Timmy Townsend. It’s an ad for Orkin. “Once bugs get into your home,” a different announcer comments, “there’s only one way to get them out.” By calling Orkin, of course.

Déjà Vu? Orkin ran a similar ad a year ago, in which a roach shadow crashed a faux ad for fabric softener. And of course the whole notion of a fake ad that morphs into a real ad for something different seems fairly derivative, particularly considering how thoroughly the famous “Energizer Bunny” campaign has worked this idea.

Hit and Myth: Nevertheless, I really like, or at least am quite fascinated by, the Orkin spots, for two reasons. First, it’s sort of astonishing to consider this well-known company playing such a mean prank on our slouching citizenry, interrupting our comfortable hours in front of the tube with nasty little jab of paranoia: Hey you filthy slob! You have bugs! (Not!)

Second, and even better, is that the ads are supposedly so effective that they have fooled people in the most embarrassing ways. One woman supposedly smashed her TV set with a motorcycle helmet last year. Elsewhere in our glorious land, Orkin claims, a man reacted with a Presley-ian volley of .357 Magnum fire directly into his screen. This sounds about as likely as the cactus that turned out to be full of tarantulas and was owned by someone your ex-roommate’s old boyfriend’s cousin knew personally. But so what? Orkin seems to be encouraging the creation of fresh urban mythology, even inviting those who were “faked out” to write in with their humiliating confessions. So: The ads certainly make you think about the Orkin service; they’re entertaining; and they feature Gary Coleman. What else could you ask for? Give them an A.