If you’ve seen a Folgers Coffee TV commercial in the past 30 years, you’ve basically seen them all. It goes like this: Somebody is asleep. Somebody else makes coffee. The aroma of the coffee wakes the sleeping person up and draws them to the kitchen where they are handed a cup and once again inhale the aroma, only more deeply. That’s “mountain-grown aroma … the best part of wakin’ up”. People almost never actually drink coffee in a Folgers commercial, because somebody long ago at Procter & Gamble (or maybe at Cunningham & Walsh, the originators of the campaign) realized that people drink coffee BECAUSE of the way it smells and IN SPITE of the way it tastes.
“Mountain-grown aroma” is one of the most truly wonderful pieces of advertising balderdash ever conceived. All coffee is mountain-grown. Coffee only grows at elevation. There is no such thing as valley-grown coffee.
When I became Group Creative Director on Folgers Coffee at N.W. Ayer (who acquired Cunningham & Wash in 1986), this campaign, along with it’s famous song, were already well established. And very successful. So, of course, we tried to change it. Let me just say that while most clients get tired of their advertising long before their audience, Procter & Gamble is not among them. To change a successful campaign, you’d better have something better than a better song.
But we did eventually sell the client a commercial the got us out of the bedroom and the kitchen and took us to the mountains of Costa Rica. The commercial was going to be one of those gorgeously photographed nature spectacles romancing the sun, the clouds, the rain, and the mountains, capturing the very essence of mountain-grown aroma. The director was Peter James, an Australian cinematographer who had just finished shooting Driving Miss Daisy, a lovely and very talented guy.
One of the central visual ideas of the commercial was to find a real mountain that looked just like the mountain on the Folgers can and at the end do a matched dissolve in which the real mountain magically becomes the mountain on the can. Get it? Genius. The production company sent a scout to search Costa Rica and find us our mountain. When the pictures came back, the mountain was so perfect, such an ideal match that everyone failed to notice that it’s name was Vulcan Arenal, an active, but resting, volcano which is to this day a major tourist attraction.
Our time in Costa Rica began ominously. All the camera equipment was impounded in customs for 5 days. So, suddenly our 5-day shoot became a 10-day adventure. So as not to waste the time, we spent the extra days scouting coffee plantations to find the exactly right bush on the exactly right slope.
We finally got shooting, and since the mountain was far from the coffee plantations, that was going to be one of our last shots. We arrived there in the afternoon, and could see the mountain in the distance. While it was still light, we scouted a field from which to get the perfect shot of the sun rising behind the mountain. We were going to shoot time-lapse.
The call the next morning was for 4:00 am. We drove to the field in the darkest dark I have ever been in and trudged through the damp grass encountering the occasional cow and accompanying cow pie. The crew was setting up the camera when all of a sudden we hear an enormous explosion. We look up and an orange ball of flame is spewing out the top of our mountain. We were far enough away not to be in any danger, so we kept filming. Eventually the flames stopped and the sun rose, and we got our shot. But the mountain kept smoking the whole while.
When we got back to New York and looked at the film, our perfect mountain was a major problem. With the time-lapse photography, it looked like a locomotive. I don’t know how much it cost, but I’m pretty sure we spent a fortune in video post-production taking the smoke out of that sky. I regret to report that that the commercial turned out to be not very good, and I’m not sure whether it ever even aired. But it was one of the most amazing shoots I was ever on.
The next commercial, needless to say, began back in bed.