The viral video phenomenon really came of age at the end of the Noughties. For advertisers it created, probably for the first time, an environment where a marketing concept that had clicked with viewers in the initial TV ad could then be amplified and extended across a series of subsequent films at comparatively low cost. Since these could be distributed online virtually for free, without the high-stakes cost of a TV campaign, it gave agencies the freedom to be looser and far more imaginative. More than a few internet heroes were born out of such a environment.
One such was "Salty", a forlorn salt shaker who suddenly finds himself without a purpose in life because Unilever's Knorr range of easy-to-make Sidekicks side-dishes were pre-seasoned. The first ad - and especially its sad little star - was such a hit with viewers that agency DDB Canada was given the freedom to make three further spots. These little masterpieces had almost nothing to do with selling packets of Knorr Sidekicks but strengthened the bond between the brand character and his audience. The project was originally assigned to creative team David Ross and Shelley Lewis; Paul Wallace later replaced Lewis on the account. Andrew Simon was executive creative director.
Andrew Simon: "Salty was born when Knorr told us they were launching a Reduced Sodium version of some of their Sidekicks products. Instead of just focusing on the good news aspect of the news, we looked at it a different way. Who *wouldn't* take it so well? After all, it was really a rejection of salt."
Paul Wallace "In the original script, the salt and pepper shakers were an old fashioned, kitschy, flea market, farmer & wife set. However, the client took issue with the farmer & wife shaker set. Essentially, they were uncomfortable with the thought of some old flea market relic in a commercial for a modern, forward thinking brand like Knorr. We briefly considered using those hugging ghost shakers that were already available commercially, but negotiations with the designer collapsed. This was more or less when I got involved. For me, based on the script, the character was a loser, like Peanuts' Charlie Brown - big, prematurely balding head with low slung ears... Anyway, we engaged the very talented Big Shot Toyworks, and eventually landed on the character of Salty as you know him."
Directed by David Hicks, the original commercial showed Salty forlornly surveying a dish of freshly prepared Knorr Sidekicks risotto and realising his time is done. He walks off into the rain outside to the sound of a plaintive Michael Bolton ballad. Eventually, he dips his head in sorrow, and instead of tears, tiny little streams of salt pour from his eyes...
PW: "The commercial was an instant success. Sidekicks were flying off supermarket shelves across Canada. People simply couldn't get enough of Salty." Clearly, more could be done with this adorable little character.
AS: "We took it one step further with a series of online videos... and this was before online videos were really a thing. All three were about Salty searching for acceptance and love, trying to pick up the pieces of his life." In these, Salty tries to find new purpose to his life; he adopts a life of crime, with disastrous consequences; briefly takes up residence in a bikers' cafe; and finally attempts to console himself with the new sensation of internet dating. Chatroulette had just taken off, and the agency actually set up Salty to pop up for a few surprise sessions.
And Salty's success wasn't just confined to the original product. AS: "In the initial presentation, we talked about the idea of creating actual salt and pepper shakers with the characters of Salty and Pep. Our clients at the time thought it was cute but were really worried that they'd be stuck with a closet-full of a few thousand salt and pepper shakers. After seeing the final character renderings, they fell in love with our characters and decided on making 30,000 sets, 25,000 of which were made available for a 'Buy 3 Sidekicks packs, get Salty and Pep for free' sales promotion. In 25 days, all 25,000 sets of shakers were sold out and were selling on eBay for $200."
Like most internet sensations, Salty burned brightly for a few months before finally fizzling out. Yet his appeal lasts to this day, even if for some people it was just all too emotional. AS: "Months later, I presented the campaign in a new business presentation to another company. After the lights came up, I saw one of the clients flat out sobbing. We didn't win the business." Ah, Salty... Come back, all is forgiven!