Annapolis marketing executive Joel Machak relished the challenge thrown his way 25 years ago when he worked for a Chicago ad agency: Create a public service campaign to promote the use of seat belts.
It was a daunting task. In 1985, fewer than one in five Americans wore seat belts, and many believed it would be safer in an accident to be thrown from a car. All of the TV spots on seat belt use at the time were somber, and some of them were terrifying. Moreover, Machak and a colleague thought, none of them worked.
Enter Vince and Larry, the walking, talking and funny Crash Test Dummies. Machak and a fellow associate creative director at the Leo Burnett advertising agency came up with a campaign based on the two characters.
Vince, the older, cynical dummy, hated his job test-crashing cars, thinking no one was listening to the message to buckle up. Larry, younger and overly enthusiastic, would try to persuade Vince to come back for just one more test because, as he said, "It could save a life."
"We were showing the horrors of a car accident in a way you can actually look at," Machak said.
By the time the campaign's TV and print run ended in 1998, seat belt use had jumped to 87 percent and Vince and Larry had become a pop culture phenomenon. Now they're being celebrated by the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History, which took possession last month of the campaign's costumes, props, drawings, set sketches, photographs and industry awards.
Machak, now an executive creative director for Crosby Marketing Communications in Annapolis, spoke with The Baltimore Sun this past week about the origins and outcomes of the Crash Test Dummies campaign.
Question: How did Crash Test Dummies end up in the Smithsonian?
Answer: A couple of years ago, Roger White, a curator at the Smithsonian, started collecting material on the history of automotive safety. It took very long for manufacturers to put safety devices in cars.
For the first seat belts, it took 30 years [after they were invented] before they were first put in cars, and when they were put in cars, people didn't like them, [thinking] if a car had a seat belt in it, there was something wrong with the car.
What [White] noticed, he looked at attitudes, and seat belts were put in cars in the early 1960s and were mandated in cars a few years later, but even 20 years later, by the mid-1980s, only 14 percent of Americans were wearing seat belts.
There was suddenly a sea change in attitudes, and people started becoming aware that safety belts were good. There was a major jump in compliance, followed by attitude shifts, and today you can sell a car with safety. He concluded the Crash Test Dummies campaign had a historic influence on the attitudes and behaviors.
Q: What does it mean in the advertising world and to you personally to have a campaign showcased by the Smithsonian?
A: To have something in the Smithsonian was something I never dreamed could happen. It's kind of an event that's so special, it's even hard to aspire to. It had won every award that we ever dreamed of, but this came as a surprise. To have something you've done deemed of historic significance by the Smithsonian, that is as good as it gets. This is honoring something that happened over a long period of time and can be looked at through the perspective of time.
Q: Tell me about the origin and creation of the campaign. What were you asked to do, and how did you come up with the idea?
A: I was working at Leo Burnett in Chicago, and the U.S. Department of Transportation came to the agency through the Advertising Council, and they were looking for something to promote safety belt usage.
I was an art director and Jim Ferguson was a writer, and working together we came up with this idea, the idea of doing something with crash dummies. The real turn was to make it funny. A person will engage humor, and if it is in fact funny, they will accept it and the message without question.
Crash test dummies had been around and used in auto safety since the '50s. If we wanted to show what happens in a car accident, we can't do it with a real person. The idea of making [the dummies] alive and making them humorous was where the breakthrough occurred. We started having fun with it.
Q: Describe a couple of the original TV spots.
A: It was called Pre-Crash. The car is being pulled backward as if it's going to be catapulted into the wall. Vince is explaining why he doesn't want to do it anymore. Vince pulls a seat belt out, and Larry stops him before he buckles it, saying, "Vince, we're dummies. We don't wear safety belts." And Vince says, "Aww, you know how to hurt a guy." And the car takes off and slams into a wall.
In "Post Crash," they were lying on the hood of a car, with broken glass and car parts and one guy's arm ripped off and another with a hole in his head. One says, "I'm history, the end of the road." [and the other says,] "No, you can't quit. Nobody takes out a utility pole like you do."
They went on playing out those roles. We were pushing to be as edgy as we could in what we were showing. [All spots ended with] "You could learn a lot from a dummy. Buckle your safety belt."
Q: Tell me about production of the TV spots.
A: We had very little money to do the campaign. It was pro bono and public service.
William Dear directed all the spots. He was the best comedy director of television commercials and was working on [the movie] "Harry and the Hendersons." He brought on the special-effects guys that worked on "Star Wars." The director of photography was Allen Daviau, who was Steven Spielberg's director of photography and shot "E.T." and "The Color Purple."
When we went to get voices, we got [comedian] Jack Burns as the voice of Vince, and Larry was [actor] Lorenzo Music, who was the voice of Carlton the Doorman in [the TV show] "Rhoda" and went on to become the voice of Garfield the cat.
Q: How did the Crash Test Dummies campaign shape your later work?
A: It underscored that … great creative does produce great results. That propelled me in that sense. I worked on McDonald's, the campaign that launched "super size" onto the American landscape, and was creative director on Hallmark for three or four years and did a number of spots that won awards. I've been at Crosby now for five years. Crosby is a perfect place for me.
The whole idea is to inspire actions that matter; instead of selling hamburgers or toothpaste, we're trying to get people to do something that will make a difference in the world. Some clients are the U.S. Department of Agriculture, helping them to fight several invasive species, and we work on Social Security Administration, helping to get seniors to register online.
Q: Has there been any talk of resurrecting the dummies?
A: No one has talked to me about it, but I would love that to happen. I think it would be a great idea to bring them back. You still see people who don't buckle, and there are new issues today with texting and cell phone use. Car safety is and always will be an issue.
See more business leaders interviewed by The Baltimore Sun