Trunk Monkey antics win over fans far, wide
Perhaps it was his cool-headedness in delivering a baby on the side of the road. Or his expertise in giving mouth-to-mouth resuscitation...
PORTLAND — Perhaps it was his cool-headedness in delivering a baby on the side of the road. Or his expertise in giving mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to a man overcome by hot coffee. Or maybe it's just that we all wish we had our very own Trunk Monkey.
Whatever his charm, Trunk Monkey, a chimpanzee featured in a comical series of car-dealership commercials, has been winning over audiences so successfully that he's generated a profitable side business for the Portland ad agency that created him 3 ½ years ago.
Dealerships from as far away as New Zealand pay to license the series of commercials for their own use and now are the largest source of revenue for the R/West agency. Meanwhile Trunk Monkey is about to debut in his biggest market yet, as a New Jersey dealership is buying ads to run in the New York City area on Super Bowl Sunday.
Tim Ciasulli of the Planet Honda and Used Car Universe dealership in Union, N.J., is hoping that viewers will have the same response he did when a friend first e-mailed them to him.
"I'm watching them and I'm just laughing," he said. "They're very funny and extremely memorable."
Like other dealerships that have licensed the commercials, he is supporting the campaign with his own marketing blitz — hiring an actor to wear a monkey suit and decking out the dealership in a jungle motif. "I think our phones are going to be ringing off the hook," he predicted.
R/West, which first created the farcical commercials in 2003, has been banking on that kind of response. The agency, headed by President Sean Blixseth, found that the commercials — originally commissioned by Suburban Auto Group in Sandy, Ore. — have just as much sway with audiences outside Oregon.
The first commercial, showing a driver hitting a Trunk Monkey button on his dashboard to subdue an aggressive road rager, was produced for less than $50,000 with the filming assistance of a friend, Blixseth said.
The commercial, and others that followed, quickly gained popularity online. Trunk Monkey has since dispatched a would-be car thief in "Sopranos" style, fended off aliens and tried to bribe a police officer to let a speeding driver off.
R/West has continued to produce the ads for Suburban Auto Group, which supplements its Trunk Monkey campaign with T-shirts and bumper stickers. It also hosts the commercials, one of which will be broadcast locally during the Super Bowl, on its Web site. But since the 2003 debut, 45 other dealerships around the world have licensed the commercials, each for tens of thousands of dollars a year, making it the largest source of revenue for R/West, which employs 20.
The proceeds go for production of new commercials — now costing about $75,000 to $100,000 — and any profit above that is split between R/West and Suburban. The two declined to disclose the profit.
Syndicating commercials isn't new, said Norm Grey, executive creative director with Creative Circus, a two-year advertising school in Atlanta.
But the challenge is, "no matter what happens, every bank, every car dealership has its own needs," he said. "It's not necessarily personal."
Still, in the world of auto advertising, which focuses on price and "the deal, the deal, the deal," Trunk Monkey breaks new ground, said Steve Miller, a senior reporter who covers the auto industry for marketing publication Brandweek.
It also is a way for a small agency like Blixseth's to gain national attention, and perhaps open the door for national clients.
He said it's unlikely that car dealerships, which have such defined geographic markets, would object to running the same commercials as another dealer somewhere else.
It didn't bother Gary Grubbs, the advertising manager for the Lawrence Hall of Abilene dealership in Texas, which started running commercials last year. "Anything that's a good idea never stays an exclusive for very long."
The commercials don't escape criticism. Some call to complain that he isn't really a monkey at all, but rather a chimpanzee. (But Blixseth protested that "trunk chimpanzee" just didn't have the same je ne sais quoi.)
And some animal-rights activists are upset about the use of a primate in advertising. The agency contracts with a California company that provides animals for filming.
But some dealerships say the commercials have only brought positive comments — as well as suggestions from customers about potential scripts.
"It has totally changed our life," said Jane Delligatti, marketing director of Arnell Auto Group in Burns Harbor, Ind. "We have people calling, giving ideas for different spots. ... This whole area of Northwest Indiana loves our Trunk Monkey."