Ad Report Card

Look Who’s Hawking

Quiznos ditches its delightful spokesrats for an insipid talking man-baby.

The Spot: We are introduced to an infant who somehow speaks with the gruff voice (and salty vocabulary) of a 40-year-old man. It’s a miracle! Sadly, this talking baby will speak only of Quiznos subs. What a missed opportunity for pediatric studies. But what a boon for those who want to learn more about oven-toasted turkey sandwiches, now available at Quiznos for $2.99. (Click here to see the spot.)

Baby Bob’s new gig

You may remember Baby Bob from his short-lived CBS sitcom. I do. I recall that his show marked a low point in the annals of televised comedy. I was not at all surprised, or disappointed, when it vanished. And I thought it would be the last we’d see of that freakish, prattling tot.

I was wrong. Baby Bob is back. It seems the character—or rather, the rights to the character—were sitting around, gathering dust, at a Los Angeles ad agency called Siltanen and Partners. Agency chairman Rob Siltanen tells me he’d been keeping Baby Bob up his sleeve, waiting for the right time to unleash him in an ad campaign.

Enter Quiznos. The sub chain had dropped its old agency and was looking for a spokesman (or spokesthing) to craft a whole new campaign around. Siltanen pitched Baby Bob, and Quiznos went for it. The driving concept? Bob craves Quiznos food but, having no molars, cannot eat it. The campaign will mine this dramatic conflict.

Admittedly, the spots do a good job capturing the baby’s natural movement (glances down, wistful sideways gazes) and matching them with dialogue that fits. Siltanen also tells me there have been advances in baby-talking technology. They can now shrink the image of the adult actor’s mouth and chin and graft it pretty seamlessly onto Bob.

But why make a better Baby Bob at all? I’ve never understood the appeal of this character. I couldn’t fathom at the time why CBS would give Bob a prime-time show. And frankly I find the idea of a middle-aged man-baby creepy and unsettling. So, I’m not really a fan of these ads. In my view, homunculus and sandwiches don’t mix. Besides, the funny-man-baby shtick was explored much better in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? where the baby smoked a cigar and sexually harassed his co-workers.

What is interesting about this campaign, I think, is that it marks a genuine shift in direction for Quiznos. They’ve shelved their old strategy. Over the last few years, Quiznos ads tried to cultivate a brand image that was wildly eccentric and provocative. The last big campaign from Quiznos featured the Spongmonkeys—a trio of levitating, rodentlike creatures who sang screechy odes to their beloved Quiznos subs. These ads were a pop-culture sensation, sparking fierce Spongmonkey adoration on one side (I confess I loved them) and disproportionate hate on the other (some people felt rats were not good mascots for a sub shop). Even before the Spongmonkeys, Quiznos ads were always a little out there. There was the spot where a man sucked on a wolf teat. And another spot where a Quiznos sub was salvaged (and eaten) after it had been tossed into a street-side garbage can.

In fact, the Quiznos brand was so well-defined (to my eyes) that I assumed the use of Baby Bob was some sort of high irony—only Quiznos could be out there enough to recycle a freakish (and failed) sitcom oddity as its spokesman. I remembered Baby Bob’s CBS show and “caught the reference,” so I felt the ad had succeeded in cementing Quiznos’ trademark eccentric vibe.

I was overthinking it. Upon talking to Trey Hall, Quiznos’ chief marketing officer, I learned that there is no irony here whatsoever. Quiznos doesn’t expect you to find this obscure pop-culture reference appealingly oddball. (Only TV obsessives like me will remember the CBS show at all.) Rather, Quiznos expects you to say, “Ha ha, talking baby! Aww, and it’s cute!”

This is a calculated retreat for Quiznos. Hall says the company concluded that the Spongmonkey spots were just way too polarizing. Too many potential customers got turned off by them. In the wake of all this Spongmonkey blowback, Quiznos rethought its marketing strategy. They decided it was time to appeal more broadly—and to offend fewer people. Thus the move to a new ad agency. And the choice of Baby Bob as the new brand figurehead. Everyone loves babies.

Hall argues that Bob is still a bit edgy and weird and is a continuation of the Quiznos brand—not a total break. But I heartily disagree. The Spongmonkeys were brilliant outsider art. Baby Bob will appeal to those who buy kitten calendars.

Grade: C, for corporate cowardice. I know in the end the important thing is not the artistic achievement of the ad, but how many subs it can sell. I just wish the two could go hand in hand a little more often.