Ad Report Card

Gnome Is Where the Heart Is

Travelocity woos users with a lawn ornament.

The gnome’s winter getaway The spot: A lawn gnome’s been kidnapped. He sends messages home to his owner, Bill, describing his myriad journeys. We see photos of the gnome as he rides on a luge or cliff-dives in Mexico. Tagline, uttered by the red-capped gnome: “Book with Travelocity. Don’t forget your hat.”

Travelocity’s “Roaming Gnome” campaign is cute—and mildly effective, I’m guessing. But it’ll need to evolve or will soon get tired.

These spots are based on a now-common prank, in which you steal your neighbor’s lawn gnome, lug it around the world, and mail back photos of the gnome astride far-flung landmarks. Whoever first thought to do this is, in my book, an unparalleled genius (and a genius of my favorite stripe, too: useless genius). Gnome-napping reached its peak in the heyday of the Front de Libération des Nains de Jardins (the Lawn Gnome Liberation Front). You can view their homepage here and thrill to a daring gnome uprising here.

I have tremendous respect for the work of the FLNJ. But by now the pilfered gnome meme is plaaaaaaayed out. It even showed up as a side plot in the maudlin French film Amelie (2001). I should have guessed it would be repurposed as an aid to commerce. Ad imitates art imitates life.

But we’ll excuse Travelocity’s derivativocity. Ad campaigns routinely draw on slightly musty pop culture. The question is: Do these spots do the job? Back in 2001, Travelocity was tops in the Web travel category. But it’s since fallen back and lost a ton of market share to Orbitz and current No. 1 Expedia. Can the gnome campaign, launched in January, help turn the tide?

More gnome travails According to David Baldwin, who helms the campaign for ad agency McKinney + Silver, the problem is that these three travel sites all have “very similar user experiences. That’s the nut you have to crack. On the surface they’re all the same, so how do you differentiate?” Baldwin argues that the other two sites lack any emotional links to their customers. The gnome, as a brand icon, gives Travelocity some personality. It’s a focal point for consumers to latch on to, forming a bond between themselves and the brand. Yes, that sounds sort of silly, and it’s a lot to ask of a lawn statue, but it’s just branding 101: See the corporate logo, or the celebrity endorser, or the garden gnome, and you reflexively feel the brand deep in your soul.

OK, but why a gnome in particular as the face of your brand? He is, of course, just the latest in a long line of odd, vaguely humanoid brand mascots—Michelin has the Michelin Man; Pillsbury has its Doughboy; Hamburger Helper has the severed Helping Hand; and McDonald’s has Yao Ming. In a mascot showdown, MSN and AOL pit the pudgy butterfly dude against the yellow, stick-figure dude. I’m not sure, but if I had to guess why companies favor these mascots, I’d say two reasons are: 1) they’re more animated than a plain old logo; and 2) they’re cheaper (and less prone to felony indictment) than a big-name celebrity.

So far, I deem the gnome at least a minor success, because he’s already caused me to remember Travelocity when checking for flights and hotels. And that there is half the battle. By contrast, the ads for the other two sites do absolutely nothing for me. (Expedia has the one where the guy books a surf lesson, then cancels when he pictures his wife with a hunky surfer stud. Before I looked it up, I could not recall which brand this was for—Expedia has no real personality and neither does this ad. As for Orbitz, its incessant pop-ups just enrage me.)

The gnome does have a few flaws. For one, he can’t move his arms and legs or his facial muscles. I think it could be tough over time to sustain a non-motile icon. How many still shots of an inexpressive gnome can we see before the charm wears off?

Another thing is that the gnome has a poncey British accent. I fear this may distance him emotionally from your average American vacation-buyer, and remember, the whole point is to establish the emotional link. (Baldwin says this voice was chosen because they didn’t want the gnome to seem too “kiddie.”)

Lastly: At one point the gnome, in his cheery way, says that hot tubs might send bubbles “up one’s woopsedaisy.” I guess that’s a cute little euphemism. But good heavens, must I be forced to consider the existence of the gnome’s plaster anus? Is this what we’ve come to now? Will I soon be made to know that the Doughboy has pale and doughy genitalia? And what of Yao Ming? Where does it stop?

Grade: B-. I like the strategic thinking here. And Travelocity needed a kick in its woopsedaisy. But I fear that the gnome has limited staying power. (He doesn’t even appear on the Travelocity home page, suggesting a certain lack of commitment.) Time, and of course market share, will eventually tell.