Rhonda's baby shows why storytelling and characters can mean marketing magic

The AAMI vaccination campaign triggered an emotional reaction in an audience wondering what had become of the romance between Ketut and Rhonda

Welcome to Unmade, written on Tuesday during an unplanned bout of self isolation at Sisters Beach, Tasmania, while awaiting the result of a Covid test.

And happy Remote Employee Appreciation Day. It’s a big one this year.

We’re now up to 1,244 Unmade subscribers.

A shoutout to the Hatched Media team who signed up en masse yesterday. I did a fun lunchtime video stream with Hatched clients and staff, talking about the themes of my book Media Unmade.

If other agencies or sales teams would like to lock in a virtual lunch and learn session on the topic of the development of Australia’s media over the last decade, hit me up at tim@unmade.media. The more the merrier.

My week did start with some disruption because of that Covid test.

On Monday morning, I noticed that there didn’t seem to be much flavour to my scrambled eggs, or my coffee, come to that. I even sprinkled some salt on a spoon, just to check, and that didn’t have the edge you’d normally expect either.

Having just spent 48 hours in Adelaide while MCing the AADC Awards, the thought occurred that, unlikely as it was, I didn’t want to be the dickhead who spread Covid in Tasmania by not checking out a loss of taste. So I cancelled my plans for the morning and made the 40 minute trip to the drive-through testing clinic in Burnie. After doing the swab (it was about my tenth, and the least uncomfortable to date) they instructed me to go home and stay there until the result came through.

Not to leave you hanging, but I’ll let you know the result at the end of the email.

Let’s get into it…

Rhonda’s return

Back when I edited a magazine called Hospital Doctor, I visit the London home of a former junior doctor. I was interviewing Jed Mercurio, who later went on to create some of British TV’s biggest TV shows including Line of Duty, Bodyguard and The Grimleys.

He’d already begun to make a name for himself after writing the TV series Cardiac Arrest. It was dark and cynical, and is still viewed by doctors as one of the most realistic medical dramas of all time. It was also the breakthrough role for actor Helen Baxendale. If it pops up on a streaming service I’d love to see if it holds up.

The final episode of the third series (and stop reading NOW if you don’t want a spoiler about a 25-year-old TV show), ended with the lead character’s life draining away after a deranged patient injected him with insulin.

As a viewer though, this fictional character’s fate was left hanging. There were no more series of Cardiac Arrest commissioned, so only Mercurio knew whether the doctor had lived or died. Did he make it, I asked during the interview.

Mercurio had never decided. Probably not, he told me with a bit of a shrug. To me, it felt like I’d just learned the character had died. I was invested enough that I still remember the conversation two decades later.

Good characters do not need to be real for people to invest in them.

This week, I felt the excitement of hearing a bit of happy news about old friends I’d lost touch with; Rhonda and Ketut have had a baby.

After a seven year break, insurer AAMI brought back its two most popular characters for a one-off pro-vaccination campaign.

The romance of Rhonda and Ketut became something of a cultural phenomenon for AAMI.

One of the reasons it caught the public’s imagination was that the story emerged slowly.

A decade ago, Rhonda was first conceived as Ron, a daggy everyman being celebrated for saving money on his car insurance.

But during the creation of the campaign, AAMI’s manager of marketing Richard Riboni told his agency, Badjar Ogilvy, that there were too many blokes in ads at the time, and Rhonda became Ron.

They later talked about the process on stage at Mumbrella360.

Ketut, Rhonda’s Balinese romance, didn’t even show up until the second ad when she went on holiday to Bali with the money she’d saved on her insurance.

Much of the power of the ad was in the casting. The actor Mandy McElhinney later appeared in big roles including as editor Nene King in the ABC’s Magazine Wars and as Gina Rinehart in Nine’s The House of Hancock. Yet despite her acting career, she’s still labelled on the first line of her Wikipedia entry as “best known for playing Rhonda”.

The campaign took on a life of its own. Facebook groups sprang up urging Rhonda and Ketut to get together. Remember when Facebook encouraged interest groups based on thin premises like “The sexual tension between Rhonda and Ketut”?

And, as Riboni revealed on stage at Mumbrella360, the ads shifted a lot of insurance. The campaign only ended because McElhinney wanted to focus on her acting.

The reaction this week was a reminder. There were tweets from people owning up to crying.

Along with casting, the other secret of the campaign’s success was that it told a story the public became interested in.

It reminds me of “Father and son”, the Telstra Bigpond ad created by BWM that also became a series, featuring older dad Patrick and son Daniel.

BWM’s executive creative director Rob Belgiovane even campaigned for the characters to feature in a movie. Telstra killed that off after a media backlash at the idea of the telco seeking public co-production funds.

It was a strategy Telstra was fond of for a while. Remember small businessman Ern, played by actor Ben Wood?

Wood has made quite a living playing hapless everyman blokes. I doubt there’s been any actor who’s been in more ads for different brands over the last decade.

There have been other brands that have made use of characters. ANZ’s “Barbara” - created by M&C Saatchi and played by comedian Genevieve Morris - worked well as a comedy character, albeit one who didn’t experience much in the way of story development.

And Coles used the device of”Jenny” the new member of staff to talk about new products. But again, there was not much in the way of story telling beyond her enjoyment of chocolate flavoured Philadelphia cream spread.

Come to think of it, even Mortein’s Louie The Fly hasn’t seen that much of a character arc, apart from Euro RSCG’s 2011 publicity stunt when they pretended to kill him off before “saving” him thanks to support from the public.

One of the few brands currently on air with an interest in developing characters seems to be insurer Budget Direct, under chief growth officer Jonathan Kerr.

Budget went from the oddly matched “Boo-jay, boo-jay” French woman and her older partner, to Captain Risky, and now to hard-bitten detective Sarge, played by actor Hamish Clark. That campaign focused on the mystery of why people don’t shop for cheaper insurance is entering its fourth year.

A few months back, that question moved front of mind for me to the extent that I did indeed switch my car insurance in Budget Direct’s direction.

When characters work, and marketers are willing to stick with the idea in the long term it’s possible to build valuable properties.

But the magic does not happen every time. Indeed, it usually doesn’t.

One aspect of AAMI’s campaign was that it attempted an Avengers assemble moment, bringing Rhonda and Ketut together in the same campaign as the characters that have followed in subsequent ads. It served as a reminder that nothing has been quite as memorable since.

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As I previously mentioned, the mysterious Dr Spin may be an occasional contributor to Unmade. His first observations appear below…

Dr Spin writes…

Smart cat, silly human

Dr Spin has long been an admirer of Michael Rowland’s relaxed broadcasting skills. The ABC News Breakfast host even finds time to multi-task, carrying on a conversation on Twitter, even as the show is on air.

So of course, Rowland wasn’t going to allow this tweet from viewer Taylor Jane go past without comment…

However, Dr Spin has some concerns about Rowland’s usually impeccable judgement with his reply…

A few minutes later, there was an update from Rowland, who had had second thoughts about Bettie’s provenance…

Provocations

Dr Spin was intrigued to read in The Guardian Australia this morning about the digital activities of a federal Labor candidate.

However, he does wonder what’s concerning about somebody dressing “proactively”.

Letters: Local loopholes

In the last edition of Unmade, I examined the difficulties of creating a new business model for local news, and the drawbacks of philanthropic funding.

Unmade - by Tim Burrowes
Making a business out of local news. Not just difficult, but lemon difficult
Welcome to Unmade, kicked off on Saturday morning on board flight VA1544 home from Adelaide, and completed on Sunday afternoon at windswept Sisters Beach, Tasmania. You know it’ll be gusty here when the BOM severe weather warning pops up in the weather app. And you know it will be…
Read more

Communications professional Kate writes:

I've learned the hard way this last week just how much of a void the lack of local news reporters has left when it comes to scrutiny of local councils.

On a personal level I've been involved in a local community group opposed to a proposed new (large-scale, commercial) daycare centre on a residential street.

he local council has managed to secure approvals by taking advantage of a number of loopholes in relevant planning legislation. My role, given that I work in communications, was to engage local media - we still have two local news outlets nominally operating in our area as well as two metro/state-level news orgs (The West Australian plus Fairfax's WA Today) and the ABC.

Given that Western Australia is now heading into local council elections across the state, and the council in question is the biggest by population and financials in all of WA, I was (naively) shocked by how hard it was to get any local media interested in even following-up the story, or indeed to get anyone to bite at the idea that one of the functions of media is to hold government at all levels accountable.

We're also seeing allegations emerge against local/shire-based governments across the state, not just in my local area.

Again due to my day job, I understand the business pressures that all levels of media face daily, but I'm challenged to work out how local media can survive under these circumstances, especially in a state as geographically large as WA but with such a small population concentrated around Perth.

I really do hope that something emerges in terms of a new business model for local media - anything is better than letting it die.

Your letters and comments are always welcome to letters@unmade.media, or via the comment button. I’d love to know your thoughts on the effectiveness of storytelling based advertising, and whether I’ve missed any major campaigns.

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Time for me to let you go about your day. Looks like it’ll be a pleasant morning for me to take a walk. Happily, I’m allowed out. The Covid test came back negative yesterday afternoon. I went to Adelaide and all I brought home with me was a cold.

Have a great day.

Toodlepip…

Tim Burrowes

Proprietor - Media Unmade