We here at the Pony blog are always on the lookout for ponies and we found one — literally — in the new commercials for Ally bank, the GM finance arm formerly known as GMAC.
A little girl is sitting at a small table in what looks like an observation room.
“Would you like a pony?” a man in a suit asks her.
“Yeah,” she replies.
He hands her a toy pony and she smiles big.
He turns to a second little girl, asks if she wants a pony, and she says yes.
He clicks his tongue and a real pony comes out.
The first little girl gives a look that could kill and says, “You didn’t say you could have a real one.”
“You didn’t ask,” he replies smugly.
This is one of three spots created by the Bartle Bogle Hegarty agency aimed at rebranding Ally and distancing it from the struggling automaker, General Motors. The other two are similar bait-and-switch themes using kids — one involving a boy and a truck, the other, a girl and a bike. The message: Other banks dupe you with the fine print — Ally bank wouldn’t do that.
It's a brilliant strategy when you're trying to rebrand a bank in the middle of a recession blamed on banks: Bring on the cute kids—and the pony!
The true genius of the spots is how real the reactions are from the kids. Most of the time when kids act, it looks like they’re reading lines from a script. But when the pony girl realizes she got cheated out of a pony, she looks genuinely aggravated and ticked off — a complex reaction you’d expect from an adult, not a child. In the spot with the boy, when he gets handed a cardboard truck and says, "It's a piece of junk!," it’s raw frustration that we can all relate to, then laugh at because we’re watching it being acted out by kids.
It’s “a purity of human experience that you rarely see in advertising,” said Barbara Lippman, a critic for Adweek. “It reminds me of the best stuff from the 60s,” like “Candid Camera” and “Kids Say the Darndest Things.”
As it turns out, the shooting of these Ally commercials was a lot like “Candid Camera.”
The kids walked into the situation blind. They didn’t know they were shooting a commercial. The parents told them only that they were going to a meeting with someone and that they were going to get to play. Director Hank Perlman of Hungry Manproductions specifically asked the parents not to prepare the kids too much.
“It’s fun for me when kids just act like kids,” Perlman said. “I think people go about it the wrong way sometimes — they want kids to act instead of just being kids.”
The set looked like an observation room — a wink to the audience that let them in on the “Candid Camera” style.
“We wanted the audience to be aware that it was hidden cameras,” Perlman said.
The cameras were hidden all over the room — on the ceiling, under tables — and there were not only cameras, but cameramen hiding in those giant white blocks in the background. They had six cameras going at any given time.
There was no script. The man/interviewer/jerk, played by actor RJ Kelly, welcomed the kids into the room. He had Perlman on a bug in his ear, to help feed him a few lines and direction.
Perlman gives Kelly a lot of credit for getting a rise out of the kids, since he was the one “on the front lines” without a script. And, he said, it also has a lot to do with casting the kids.
“It kind of has to start with finding kids who are really funny and interesting — who have that spark that makes you want to watch them,” Perlman said.
The kids in the spots aren't your typical blond-haired blue-eyed Brady-type kids: The truck boy is chubby, the Pony girl is brunette and the bike girl is a redhead.
Perlman said that's because he gravitates toward the quirky, smart, sassy, chubby, skinny, nerdy kids — not the “cutesy wootsey” stage kids — admitting that one of his favorite movie was the original “Bad News Bears” because of the oddball cast of kids.
To find the kids for the Ally commercials, they did traditional casting of kid actors, but also did “real-people” casting, scouting schools and recreation centers in New Jersey.
During the “interviews,” they’d ask typical questions like “What’s your name?,” “How old are you?,” “Any brothers and sisters?” and “What’s your favorite flavor of ice cream?,” then threw them a curveball like “Ever been to jail?” or “Are you married?”
Some kids would sheepishly smile and say, “No, of course I’m not married.” The ones who stood out, Perlman said, were the ones who ran with it and said something like, “Oh, I’ve been married for three years now.”
YOU CAN'T MAKE THIS STUFF UP
Kelly said it was a lot easier doing improv with kids than you might think.
“With kids, they often won’t stop talking! They have an answer for everything,” Kelly said. “If anything, it’s easier to improv with kids!”
The little boy with the truck was actually one of the professional actors. He didn’t know exactly what they were doing but Perlman said he knew his shtick — the obnoxious, bully-type kid.
“He was just so full of life and funny — but nuts, too! He was all over the place!” Kelly said.
He was also pretty savvy, Perlman added. “He made sure we knew that he knew what was going on!”
“Maybe he was duping me!” Kelly quipped.
They did shoots with 10 to 15 kids for each spot in order to make sure they got the reaction they were looking for.
Perlman would do a take, then say, “OK, reset. Let’s try that again.” Kelly explained. “He got some great looks that way … he willed out some of these faces.”
The girl who ultimately ended up in the pony commercial wasn’t an actress. (But after that Oscar-worthy look — who knows!)
The pony commercials were, in fact, the hardest, Perlman said — some of the kids, including the girl who was ultimately chosen for the spot, got upset that they got a toy pony instead of a real pony.
When you think about the fact that they did multiple takes, and each time the girl lost out on the real pony, you can see where that look you saw in the commercial was cumulative frustration like — Are you kidding me? Not again!
But rest assured, she did eventually get to ride on the pony.
It’s important to Perlman that the kids have fun on his shoots. At the end of filming, he’d explain to each kid that it was a commercial and then gave them a ride on the pony — sometimes before filming if a kid looked particularly nervous.
Kelly was also sensitive to the kids, making sure not to push them too far, and putting them at ease by chatting about their favorite games and TV shows between takes.
One funny thing, Kelly said, was that when he asked, “Would you like a pony?” a couple of kids actually said “no!”
“They were either scared or just didn’t want a big pony,” he explained. “Some actually wanted the plastic one!”
Stay tuned: The spots were so successful, they’re shooting more in August.
Who knew? All it took was a few cute kids and some hidden cameras to smooth out this whole banking mess!
If you haven't seen the spots, or just want to see them again, watch them here:
Little Girl With Pony:
Little Boy With Truck:
Little Girl With Bike:
These ads run on several networks, including CNBC.
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