ALEX BOGUSKY may be the modern-day Mad Man. He created a legacy on Madison Avenue by junking the rules of advertising and drumming-up ground-breaking ads and videos for Burger King and Mini Cooper. Under Bogusky, the ad agency Crispin Porter + Bogusky became the go-to, hipper-than-hip agency.
But Bogusky wasn't comfortable at the top. He left two years ago as co-chairman and has since sought-out socially-relevant causes in which to inject his creative zest. Earlier this week, he made headlines for a parody, animated video he helped create of the "real" Coke Polar Bears. The video, at TheRealBears.org, depicts the bears losing their teeth, their sexual appetites and even their legs due to over-consumption of cola. Bogusky, 49, spoke exclusively with USA TODAY marketing reporter BRUCE HOROVITZ about the biting video, his life after advertising -- and what cola he drinks.
Q: Why did you do this video?
A: I got a call. It was Michael Jacobson (executive director of the advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest). I'd done a project with him before and I'm a big fan of his.
Q: But you're a guy who spent most of his career extolling the virtues of junk food for clients from Burger King to Domino's to Coke. Why the change of heart?
A: My views began to change (in 2008) about the time I wrote The Nine Inch Diet, about portion control. I've grown concerned about portion size because I think we treat soda like a beverage, but it's really a candy.
Q: How much soda is too much soda?
A: When consumed in small portions, it's not a problem. But in huge quantities, it is. I call it portion distortion. When we have small, medium and large that are all too big, people gravitate to the middle.
Q: Why pick on soda when it's just one of many causes of obesity?
A: We know that soda is the biggest single contributor of calories in the American diet. So, it's more an issue of concern about an American diet that's gone wrong.
Q: You've got a couple of teenage kids. Could it be the "angry daddy" in you that's behind this?
A: My son loves soda. I love soda. My idea is not a world without soda. We just have to recognize the costs of drinking too much of it.
Q: You like soda? What kind do you drink?
A: My family looks for soda made with cane sugar. We have a theory that high fructose corn syrup is a problem. Our favorite here in Boulder is a brand called Izze.
Q: But aren't you basically telling people not to drink soda?
A: No. I formerly worked on an anti-smoking campaign called Truth. It was not about asking people not to smoke. It was about showing them: here's the reality. At this point, because of portion sizes, we have the same thing with soda. I think, as a culture, we're getting a wake-up call.
Q: What is that wake-up call?
A: Well, you have a (soft drink) industry with unrelenting profit demands. As it turns out, there's a health cost to those demands. As a society, we're just waking up to that.
Q: Why would this video change anyone's behavior?
A: The Truth spots we did were among the most successful social marketing campaigns to dates. There was a 30% decline in teen smoking over two or three years.
Q: Do you think you can do to sugary drinks what you did to tobacco?
A: There's no way to know. There are some social parallels. But we're a long ways away from that.
Q: What are the parallels?
A: We were once at a place where tobacco advertising could talk about how soothing it was for your throat or how doctors recommended it. We're still in that place with soft drinks. Some say they if you drink it, you'll be happy and life will be glorious. But drinking too many soft drinks definitely doesn't equal happiness. Some day soon, when we see that kind of happy advertising for soda, we'll laugh.
Q: Will that pressure ever reach the Olympic Games, where Coca-Cola has been a major sponsor for years?
A: The amount of money that changes hands is too much for the Olympics to turn its back on right now. But we'll get there.
Q: You call these bears "The Real Bears," but in fact, they're the Coke Polar Bears in parody. Why just not say that?
A: They're just some bears. They don't really resemble them. It's interesting what would happen to bears if they had the consumption habits that we do.
Q: C'mon, Alex. These are obviously the Coke Polar Bears in parody. Has your attorney advised you not to admit that?
A: They're just some bears. I have no attorney. I leave it up to people to decide if they see a parallel.
Q: What is it that you hope to accomplish with this video?
A: This is a drop in the bucket. We'll see what it does. The hope is that people will begin to think about drinking sugary beverages and how it affects their health.
Q: Some might think that you're specifically out to get Coke.
A: I'm very empathetic about the position that the (beverage giants) are in. For them to make their business work in the short term, it's probably going to be part of making us sicker. That's a tough position. Most corporations, by design, don't allow for our personal humanity to come through.
Q: But what do you specifically want? A soda tax? Ad limits on soda?
A: I'm just one member of society with a point of view that we're getting sick because we're consuming too many sugary beverages. How we, as a culture, choose to deal with it is a group decision. That's how we improve our system. I don't hope about a specific decision, but I think dialogue will help to create one. This is just a conversation starter.
Q: How much did the video cost to make?
A; Well, I can tell you that the Center For Science doesn't have the kind of budget that most of the clients I've dealt with do. We put a coalition of ad creatives together (pro bono). We cobbled together a virtual agency with a creative and production department. Then we found a young animator (Lucas Zanotto) with terrific style who was young and hungry enough that we could afford him.
Q: What about the music?
A: I know (Grammy Award winning singer/songwriter) Jason Mraz. I sent him a rough of the video and he got excited about it. He wrote it and performed it (with San Diego rapper MC Flow.) That's the biggest thing about this project. It just grew.
Q: Plan to air it on the Super Bowl along side Coke's ads?
A: This will not be on the Super Bowl.
Q: Is this the first real "ad" you've done since leaving the agency business?
A: I've not done any real ads since. I did some work for Al Gore's Climate Reality Project last September that got a lot of views. But this is not my coming out party. I don't feel like I've ever stopped working in marketing.
Q: You were on top of the ad world. Why chuck it all for this?
A: We moved the agency to Boulder six years ago. Then, I left the agency 2-1/2 years ago. I was going from owner to employee. I felt like I just wanted to try other things. As your agency gets bigger, your clients have to be really large companies. My values were changing. it was not as much fun to work on things that didn't align with my values. I wanted to work on other things. I love social entrepreneurs and start-ups and I wanted to get back to that.
Q: What else are you working on?
A: I recently invested in an agency dedicated to the resurgence of American manufacturing called MadeMovement. It's in Boulder and I have a minority ownership in it.
Q: You got rich off of Burger King, Domino's and Coke and now you're punching them all in the gut. Aren't you a hypocrite?
A: That's fair. When you change your mind about things, you get painted as a hypocrite. I get that. But if I wasn't willing to go though this stage, I couldn't change. People paint others as hypocrites because they want to make people afraid of change. I'm stuck with that. I've changed. Oh, and I never worked on a calorie beverage for Coke. We did Coke Zero.
Q: But your agency briefly made Burger King cool again.
A: You have to operate by truth as you see it. We obviously have a lot of problems with our health as a culture. Some of it has to do with what we're eating. Our genetics haven't suddenly changed.
Q: So, who is your real target for this polar bear video?
A: Moms of the world. I'd love moms to see this. Guys give up when things get tough, but moms figure it out. I want moms to see it and get passionate about it.
Q: Anything you'd like to change about the video, now that it's viral?
A: We thought about making a PG version of it. For that one, we'd have cut out the erectile dysfunction scene. And the amputation scene was originally pretty grisly. We cut that way down.
Q: The video ends with the bears all pouring their cola into the ocean. Isn't that the wrong environmental message?
A: That was the Number One reaction we got to the ending: What will happen to the fish? That's so wild. We're willing to drink cola and serve it to our kids, but we're concerned the moment we pour four bottles of it into the ocean.