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markets: Driving the Truck

Four guys, a racecar driver and a truck: the story behind an ad campaign that surprised even the Martin Agency.

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Meanwhile, UPS drivers in Richmond, where NASCAR fever runs high, sigh when asked if they ever hear people demanding to know when NASCAR driver Dale Jarrett will race the truck. "All the time," says one.

Call it "cultural resonance," as one Martin Agency representative puts it. Call it the mecca of advertising — that elusive moment when a marketing slogan leaps into the mainstream, like "Just Do It" or "Yo quiero Taco Bell." What it really means is that four grinning guys at the agency have come up with something people like. Here's the line:



"We want to race the truck. People love the truck."



That's it?



The Martin Agency has received widespread attention for the "What can brown do for you?" campaign it developed for the United Parcel Service. But even before that slogan was created, a Martin Agency creative team was working on publicizing the UPS sponsorship of Jarrett.



Creating the concept for the campaign was simple, they say. The links between UPS and NASCAR are obvious — driving and speed. The next logical jump was "just a no-brainer: that Dale is going to drive the big brown truck," Harper says.



Or is he? The ads' recurring gimmick is UPS officials' desperate attempts to get Jarrett to race the truck in a NASCAR competition, where cars can travel up to 180 mph. But the 45-year-old Jarrett is stubbornly reluctant to get behind the wheel of anything but his No. 88 Ford Taurus. He has some "concerns," one ad points out, "mostly about the aerodynamics, torque, downforce, drag, handling, horsepower, chassis, fuel mileage, cooling, safety, passing inspection, pitting and winning."



The agency introduced the joke in November 1999, in a series of pages in NASCAR-themed magazines that repeated the "We want to race the truck" slogan. Financially, it was a minor campaign, UPS says, directed only at racing fans. But that's a pretty big group; NASCAR, by the numbers, is the most popular spectator sport in America, and counts 75 million followers. The campaign soon ignited interest in a way no one expected.



Beginning in February 2001, the agency aired TV commercials during NASCAR races on NBC, Fox, TNT and FX, continuing the "People love the truck" theme. "So whaddaya say?" asks a smarmy, suited spokesman, standing with Jarrett before a brown UPS vehicle. "I'm not driving a truck," Jarrett responds in his North Carolina drawl.



More recent spots feature other pleaders: a chubby kid who threatens to hold his breath until Jarrett races the truck, a staticky mall loudspeaker with the same request and even Ned Jarrett, Dale Jarrett's father and a racing legend, cajoling his son over lunch.



The ad series will continue to increase the pressure on Jarrett to race that truck, says creative director Cliff Sorah: the next run of commercials features celebrities echoing the plea. One may wonder if George Thorogood singing "Brown to the bone, b-b-b-b-b-brown" to Jarrett is more convincing than a boy holding his breath, but the Martin team is confident viewers will play along.



So far, they have. NASCAR followers send in their ideas for ad scenarios to UPS by the thousands, says Susan Rosenberg, public-relations manager for UPS. "We get letters. We get e-mails. We get faxes and calls," she says, as she taps out a reply to a fan in Tampa, Fla.



When Martin Agency staffers brought to a race about 50 bumper stickers reading "My other car is a big brown truck" and began handing them out to fans, they were mobbed. "It was like we were handing out beer," Lawson says.



Fans repeat the slogan everywhere from raceways to online chat rooms to the studio of the QVC shopping channel, when Jarrett appeared to sell memorabilia. "If I was Dale, I'd hate us," Harper says.



Then again, "the fans love seeing Dale annoyed," says Joe Lawson, senior copywriter and the only lifelong NASCAR fan on the creative team. Adds Harper: "I think it's hilarious because it's so against type for him." Senior Vice President Cliff Sorah, also a member of the creative team, describes Jarrett as a gentleman and a clean racer. "A class act all the way," Harper says.



And recently, although Jarrett has dropped from first in the points rankings last year to 24th, NASCAR polls show his popularity has increased. There's no telling why, exactly, but Lawson believes the ads have made Jarrett less of a "cardboard cutout" and revealed his good-humored, aw-shucks side.



Two more celebrity spots are set to air this season, and the four brainstormers are working on the next wave for the fall. Rosenberg says UPS plans to continue the campaign as long as fans keep clamoring for Jarrett to get into the truck.



"It'll be over when he races it, and that's not going to happen," says Sorah. But Rosenberg says Jarrett may drive that truck after all: "We'll just have to wait and see."



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