Nowadays Vodafone is well established in the Australian mobile phone market, though the situation was quite different when the telco first entered the marketplace in the late 90’s. Vodafone took the challenge in stride and worked hard in franchising over 40 Vodafone retail stores nationally in 1997, though the company knew that it would need to somehow boost its brand in order to gain market share from Optus and Telstra. To that end, Vodafone invested in a unique television and radio advertising campaign in a move to quickly and efficiently build brand awareness.
Vodafone turned to advertising firm Saatchi and Saatchi for the job, which then came up with the idea that a celebrity should become the face of the Vodafone brand in Australia. That celebrity would be Michael Richards, who at the time played the character Kramer on popular U.S. sitcom Seinfeld. Up until that point, Richards had not been widely used for product endorsements in the US market, and instead had carved himself a niche in South Korea as a product spokesman.
Australian director, David Parker, was busy directing television commercials for Renegade Films in Melbourne when the scripts for the Vodafone campaign came his way. Parker did a full treatment of the campaign for Saatchi and Saatchi, while his producer, Kenny Connor, budgeted the production before it was pitched to the advertising agency. “We got on really well with the creatives,” Parker said. “They liked our take, so we were in business.”
According to Parker, Richards was the first and only choice by Saatchi and Saatchi for the campaign. The actor had already made a name for himself from his unique style of physical comedy on Seinfeld, and his marquee value strongly appealed to the advertising agency. “Saatchi and Saatchi wanted a big name,” Parker said. “My understanding was that they wanted Kramer, and they did what was necessary to get him.”
Building Oz in LA
The Vodafone advertisements focused on the misadventures of Michael Richards’ character as he arrives Down Under and explores the continent. While Richards’ character in the commercials was not named, he dressed and behaved identically to Seinfeld’s Kramer, which included his trademark bumbling pratfalls and exaggerated body language. The commercials were intended to be light-hearted and amusing in order to build interest and goodwill among the public for the then new Vodafone brand in Australia.
While Saatchi and Saatchi managed to rope Richards in for the campaign, the firm was unable to convince the American actor to come down to Australia for shooting. This created a bit a conundrum for Vodafone, as the commercials were supposed to be about Richards’ misadventures in Australia. The eventual solution was for Parker and his production team to go and do the filming in Los Angeles. However, the Australian setting of the commercials meant that the film crew was faced with the daunting challenge of recreating Australia in Los Angeles.
Some of the challenges the production team had to overcome in LA was putting steering wheels on the right side of vehicles and finding national parks that looked like the ones in Australia. “Even supermarkets in the US are quite different and had to be finessed to look like an Aussie Coles or Safeway,” Parker said. “We took an Australian designer with us each time to ensure the authenticity of the locations.”
While the public was familiar with Richard’s face and personality through Seinfeld, Parker found the actor reasonably good to work with. However, he admits that the jolly actor could be difficult sometimes. “It’s pretty well documented that Richards has a prickly side to him, and we copped that a bit,” Parker said. “But I’d have to say generally he was pretty darned good.” While Parker usually tends to juggle both the directing and shooting duties, the shooting of the Vodafone commercials was left to dedicated cameramen as Parker knew he would have his “hands full just directing.”
Vodafone, oh yeah!
According to Bruce David Keillor, author of Marketing in the 21st century: Integrated Marketing Communication, the $40 million investment by Vodafone into the Richards campaign resulted in mobile sales in Australia increasing by 1.3 million customers over three years. Although the commercials were instrumental in putting Vodafone on the map in Australia, the telco ended the campaign in the middle of 2001 when it pursued a global revamp of its mobile brand.
At the time, low-cost Australian telco, One.Tel, had already gone out of business and Vodafone wanted to convey to customers that it was the largest mobile phone carrier in the world, as well as the benefits that come with joining a large company. “Our company has changed and Kramer is not the same star anymore,” Vodafone general manager brand marketing, Michael Beckerleg, said at the time. “Seinfeld was great but it’s had its day and it’s a bit passé now.”
In retrospect, Parker felt that the ads were “beautifully performed” by Richards and “worked a treat” for the particular product that Vodafone was trying to sell. “They were very successful and I’m pretty sure they put Vodafone on the map here in Australia.” Despite relying on his Kramer persona, it seems that Richards himself was also fond of the commercials. “While I’m sure the money was appealing, I think Vodafone gave him a vehicle for the very thing he is really good at,” Parker said.
While Parker went on to bigger and better things, the Vodafone commercials still hold a special place for him even after all this time. “I'm proud of the fact that we created a legendary set of commercials that stand up even today,” he said. “They were well written and well loved commercials where Richards was a star, and even now nearly 15 years later, they are remembered fondly by people.”
Remembering the Vodafone shoots
Parker on Richards’ temperament:
“One night we were shooting a commercial where Richards was standing on the rail of the Santa Monica pier in a Titanic pose. We had a big crane that we used to do the shot in one take to spin around and bring to stop with Richards perfectly in frame. It was pure gold but tiring. Richards began getting stroppy when we couldn't agree on a shot, so he put his arm around me and marched me up to the agency representatives. ‘Do you want Michael Richards humour,’ he said with a big forced smile on his face, ‘or do you want David Parker humour?’ he said as he dropped his shoulders and smile, mustering up all the disdain he could find. The agency was gobsmacked and I think the decision was, ‘we'll do it both ways.’ Later that night, he did apologise.”
Parker on his favourite Vodafone commercial:
“The one I liked the best was the supermarket skit, where Richards tries to buy one egg and the checkout girl says he can't. The punch line is when he puts a single slice of bread on the belt. We shot this in a supermarket at Point Doom near Malibu. That was the closest supermarket we could get to LA, as the others have been burned too many times before by film crews.”
Parker on the missing Vodafone commercial:
“There was one commercial that never went to air because the product, a satellite phone, never hit the market. Richards’ phone gets pulled out of his hand by a camel and he tries to get it back, but the camel is bucking away. Richards ends up hanging onto the camel’s neck and getting thrown around. Quite a risky piece of action, one I wouldn’t want to repeat again.”
Parker on Playboy bunnies:
“One of the commercials we did was in a bowling alley with twins from the Playboy Mansion. They were hilarious, with one studying to become a psychologist and the other was just looking forward to getting married and having kids. They had identical boob jobs and they were very proud of them.”
Parker On Richards post-Vodafone:
“During the last set of commercials we did, Richards was staring in and directing some detective series on The Michael Richards Show. It bombed and he was not a happy boy. Then there was the racist Laugh Factory incident in 2006 which really surprised me. I suspect he’s been having trouble getting substantial work since then.”
Patrick Budmar covers consumer and enterprise technology breaking news for IDG Communications. Follow Patrick on Twitter at @patrick_budmar.