Or at least that’s what it has become. If you’ve been paying attention recently you’ve seen Ron Burgundy, the character created by Will Ferrell in the modern comedy classic Anchorman, all over the place.
In Dodge commercials
On local news in Bismarck, ND
At the Canadian Curling Trials in Winnipeg
Of course this is all promotion for Anchorman 2, which hits theaters later this month. But it seems to me it is more than that. I’m sure Ferrell, like other celebrities will make appearances, as himself, on Leno, Letterman, The Daily Show, etc., but it’s not often you see actors, in character, going to places like Winnipeg or North Dakota, and make no mistake, those locations are carefully chosen. They are chosen so as to be discovered, and shared, by Ferrell’s fans, who are rewarded for scouring the Internet and sharing their discoveries with the community.
No, Ferrell is engaged in another form of storytelling. He’s created a transmedia experience that is well, experiential. Ron Burgundy now inhabits a sort of pseudo-fictional, quasi-reality that doesn’t just promote the “Anchorman Universe,” but expands upon it. The Burgundy character is a cartoonish trope familiar to those well-versed in the Judd Apatow school of comedy. He’s the buffoonish man-child, egotistical, self-centered and infantile. In other words, he’s a lot like people you see on TV.
Burgundy’s appearances at various events and within car commercials break the barriers between performer and audience, but not in the same way that say, Garry Shandling broke the 4th wall on It’s Garry Shandling’s Show. Usually when performers engage more directly with the audience they break character – a knowing wink or nod, an admission that they know this is fiction, and they know that you know. But not with Ferrell/Burgundy. It’s more of a McSweeney’s style of humor. An “I know you know, and you know I know you know, but I’m not going to acknowledge it”-sort of performance art. By maintaining the illusion, Ferrell/Burgundy pull us into their world while inhabiting ours. Ferrell’s comic forebearer is more Andy Kaufman than fellow SNL alum Chevy Chase.
But like another SNL ‘Not Ready For Primetime Player,’ Mike Myers, Ferrell is gifted at creating characters infused with a certain humanity that makes them believable while at the same time fulfilling the requirements of comic absurdity. Their genius being the ability to inhabit these beloved characters but not be totally typecast by them.
So we come to the question, what can a brand learn from this? How can a car company or a QSR or a CPG manufacturer leverage this sort of cultural capital? Surely there is no shortage of brand characters out there. GEICO has come pretty close with the Caveman characters. (Full disclosure, I thought the Caveman-spinoff TV show was cleverly written.) Old Spice achieved a certain degree of transmedia traction with The Man Your Man Could Smell Like via the YouTube response videos.
But most brand mascots don’t have the multi-dimensionality or talent of Ferrell/Burgundy. Perhaps the best move is in fact the one played by Dodge. Borrow the equity and interest of an existing character. It seems to be working, as sales of the Dodge Durango is up 59%.
With notable exceptions like John Carter we live in a world where the blockbuster hit is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Anchorman 2 is going to be a huge hit (BoxOfficeMojo predicts the film with double its predecessors take, raking in a total of $165 million). From movies to video games to awards shows and events, the opportunities for a brand to create a transmedia experience, rather than just a sponsorship or TV spot, are endless. Kudos to Dodge for not simply hiring Will Ferrell, but for understanding culture and figuring out how to triangulate between the product, the character and the actor.