Trunk Monkey See, Trunk Monkey Do

By Patrick Keller

People have been known to put some odd things in their trunks. Sure, most use that space to house a spare tire, a jack, and maybe some sort of automotive fluid. Others, however, have used trunks to store everything from massive stereo systems to that squealer Lenny who blabbed to the FBI.

Starting a year ago, however, a considerable number of Portlanders began to wonder if their trunks might be better served with a handy little monkey occupying it. During Super Bowl XXXVII, Suburban Auto Group aired what would become one of the most successful commercials the area has ever seen. The ad depicts a humble Suburban customer caught at a stoplight by a screaming road rager. Rather than escalate the situation, the driver pushes a small button on his dash labeled “Trunk Monkey.” Said simian then emerges from the back of his car with a crowbar to dispatch the troublemaker.

The commercial was an instant hit, and spawned, to date, three additional ads detailing the continuing adventures of drivers and their chimps. “We had a relationship with Suburban, prior to the monkey ads, for about a year and a half,” says Sean Blixseth, President of R/West, the Portland-based agency behind the ads. “We did this first round [of television commercials] with them where we focused on Suburban’s amazing service. They have this great reputation, and we thought, how can we dramatize that and cut through the clutter?” This resulted in a few memorable ads, like one that made use of the old theory that people can relax during public speaking by imagining their audience in their skivvies. “We said, why imagine? And the spot had all the sales staff running around in their underwear.

“So we submitted more like that,” Blixseth continues, “but Suburban pushed us to come up with something edgier. We went back to the drawing board and came up with some pretty edgy stuff. It was between about three different directions that were submitted, but the mass appeal of the monkey was so unique that they chose that one.”

“We didn’t want a typical car commercial,” says Erinn Sowle, General Manager at Suburban. “Part of our reputation is that we have a great repeat and referral customer base. The whole background of the campaign was ‘what we do differently to take care of our customers.’ So when they presented that, we all just loved it.”

R/West didn’t hit upon the monkey right away, however. “We originally came up with Trunk Genie,” Blixseth says, “but we just can’t afford to go to Digital Domain to have them create that.” Not that monkeys, like Jonah, the ad’s star, come cheap. “The monkey we used is probably the most expensive, highest paid actor we’ve ever used.” And like many stars, Jonah required some extra coddling to coax a performance from of him. “We are limited by when he is ready. Sometimes he’s just not motivated enough, so they’ll try to get him excited again. During one of the breaks, they put a dollar in a pop machine and he got to pick his own Dr. Pepper. If only we could have filmed that!”

Once Jonah was finished, however, the ad aired and provoked an immediate reaction. “We started getting ten or fifteen calls a day,” Blixseth recalls. “It became this Internet obsession. It was the number one commercial on this site called Ad Critic. People were sending it to everyone else. All these dealerships were calling. Chevy called! It was one of the Top 100 commercials in the world of 2003.”

Of course, with all this attention, some amount of protest was inevitable. “We did get some calls from people saying it was violent,” Suburban’s Sowle says. And then People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals put out a call for their members to protest R/West’s use of “live primates.” Blixseth says he anticipated this, or, rather, more than this. “I expected a lot more trouble from PETA, but we really didn’t get that much. We got a lot from people thinking it was too violent, but we’re talking about a monkey. It’s clearly drama.”

Additionally, Blixseth says, these protesters aren’t getting a complete picture of the lives of these animals. “At this particular company, the monkeys are ones that were pets and have been abandoned. So they’re not ‘taken away’ from anywhere. This is a refuge and [acting] is a way to make money.”

“Besides, the monkey’s never really in the trunk. There are rules and regulations about dealing with animals. People may say, ‘Oh my god, I can’t believe you did that,’ but really, we didn’t. It’s smoke and mirrors.”

For his part, Blixseth has put his money where his mouth is when it comes to animal issues. Not only has he been a supporter of the Jane Goodall Foundation, but he also runs his own nonprofit company, Blue Five, devoted to protecting the oceans. “I’ve always been actively involved with animal rights and protecting the interest of animals. We made sure that when we chose this [campaign] to make sure that we did things right. But these people who write in, I think that their interest is in the right place, but they just don’t know.”

Regardless, the protests were only one very small part of the attention that the ads garnered. “What is amazing is that this is all just for this little company, but it is one of the most award-winning spots in the world.” Among those who have heaped awards on little Trunk Monkey that could are The One Show (which Blixseth calls “the Oscars of advertising”), the Association of Independent Commercial Producers, and even the Cannes Film Festival. “It even made it into MOMA, the Museum of Modern Art, where it’s a permanent fixture now.”

That’s not all. As the phenomenon caught on, other dealerships wanted some of R/West’s lightning in a bottle. So far, the commercial has been licensed to about 12 different dealerships nationwide, Blixseth says. That’s not all, though. “We’ve licensed it in Europe, Canada and the United States. It has run all over Europe, not for licensing, but because they’re big on watching crazy commercials.”

Unfortunately, after a year and a handful of commercials, it would appear that the end is in sight for the Trunk Monkey. “We’ll be ending it this year,” Blixseth reveals. The finale hasn’t been decided yet, although the next commercial in the series is due shortly. Although previous spots have been filmed in Portland, this new one is to be filmed in Los Angeles for weather considerations, starring, notably, a new monkey. Jonah, it seems, is retired. (His replacement, Ellie, is a veteran of ads for Capital One and Nestle.) “This new commercial, the idea is ‘the new, improved Trunk Monkey.’ This guy is trying to hot-wire the car and he trips the ‘Auto Trunk Monkey.’ You don’t need to hit the button anymore.” From there, Blixseth says, the campaign heads into the big finish. He’s tight- lipped about the details, but hints at a few possibilities, including a possible promotion or even a recall for Suburban’s favorite simian.

Whatever the result, it’s been quite a ride for all involved. “The cool thing,” Blixseth says, “is that this commercial has become a global phenomenon, but it started here with this Sandy dealership.”

BrainstormNW - February 2004

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