Quirky products (like briefcase speakers) call for quirky commercials

People love stories about plucky indie film auteurs who create distinctive masterpieces, overcoming obstacles like a lack of budget through a combination of imagination, chutzpah and sheer force of will.

But what about indie commercials? We’re not talking about those slapdash “I buy your jewellery” or car dealer ads here, but ones with an actual script, actors, and creative concept. Outwardly, they possess all the hallmarks of a regular commercial, but you know there’s just no way they’ll ever pop up on prime-time TV.

Which brings us to a strangely compelling online campaign for a new product called Bassmaker, a $399 Bluetooth speaker in the shape of a briefcase developed by a Toronto man named Stewart Orr. Surprisingly, it’s not the only entrant in the “emerging” briefcase speaker category, going tweeter-to-tweeter with a company called The Boomcase and a retro boombox product called BumpBoxx.

Orr, though, is adamant that while they might share a form factor, the competing products appeal to widely different audiences. “Their market is the same audience who would like a Hummer,” he says of BumpBoxx. And Bassmaker’s audience? “I don’t want to flatter us too much… but some luxury sedans. I won’t give names.” He also counts “cool dads”  among his audience, noting that the average age of Bassmaker buyers is 46.

On the surface, Bassmaker’s new four-ad campaign is polished and looks professional, with a credits list that includes well-known service providers like Alter-Ego and Saints Editorial. Yet it also possess a certain otherworldliness, a look, tone and feel that places it squarely outside the realm of the conventional.

It’s the brainchild of Toronto copywriter turned director Joshua Schendel, an enthusiastic storyteller who also recently adopted the professional name Jackie Abraham. Why? “I just thought it was an awesome name,” says Schendel/Abraham, who’s now repped by Toronto’s Steam Films. “It’s just a fun way to market myself.”

Orr and Schendel first met while studying English together at Western University. “I just pretended to read James Joyce for four years,” Abraham admits of his post-secondary experience.

Speaking to The Message from Mexico, Orr describes Abraham as “next-level hilarious.”

“I think he’s a maniac, but I love him,” says Abraham of Orr.

Their paths diverged after graduation, although the two would stay in touch over the next decade. “After school, it was like ‘What are you going to do?’ I was like, ‘I’m going to be a writer,’ and Stewart was like, ‘I’m going to Taiwan,'” says Abraham. “And then he just never came home. He got his MBA [and] he was working in a factory that made roller-coasters.”

Last summer, Orr pitched his erstwhile university classmate on creating an ad campaign for Bassmaker. “He said, ‘We should sell this thing, man. We could make a lot of money,'” says Abraham. “I said ‘Stu, there are so many ways to make money, but I don’t know that a briefcase speaker is the ticket.'”

Orr finally wore his old friend down, though, and Abraham, who’s spent the past five years doing a little freelance copywriting with the likes of BIMM, Juniper Park/TBWA and DentsuBos before making a move behind the camera, promised to help with some marketing.

“I knew I needed to have something that wasn’t just shot using my hand-held,” says Orr. “We didn’t want dancers and techno-music, and throwing luxury in people’s face. We wanted more practical ads. [Abraham] was really into film back then, and I knew I would definitely pay to see something he put together.”

After giving it some thought, Abraham came up with a marketing approach he believed just might work. Rather than pretending that a briefcase speaker was a much-needed addition to the audio segment, the creative would acknowledge its absurdity. “I was like, ‘What if we just take the piss and have some fun with this product and make fun of it a little bit?'” he says. “Sometimes you can get away with that in advertising.”

The YouTube and sponsored Instagram ads have a decidedly offbeat sensibility, with long beats between dialogue and lots of reaction shots. “I wanted the tone of the creative to align with the product itself,” said Abraham. “I wanted them to be weird and offbeat, because that’s what this thing is.”

Much of the inspiration came from the off-kilter humour and cinematic style of the Netflix show The End of The F***ing World, says Abraham. “What inspires you is never what you finish with, but that’s kind of what got the ball rolling,” he says.

All of the spots (shot at a combined cost of $1,500) are set at a bus stop, where a Bassmaker owner drolly attempts to engage an unsuspecting passenger in a conversation about his speaker, pointing out features like its battery life, its co-axial speakers and Bluetooth connectivity. “Like there’s an easier way to listen to music,” he says in one.

The four ads (see them all below) were shot during a single day in late August, with a Public Storage facility in Toronto’s Liberty Village neighbourhood serving as the backdrop. They six-person crew gathered at 9 a.m., but cinematographer Rob Scarborough was insistent the sun had to be in just the right position before shooting. “Directors of photography are crazy,” says Abraham. “At around 10:15 a.m., I was like ‘Rob we’ve got to go now, or we’re never gonna go.'”

Abraham was determined that the spots have an anywhere-but-Toronto vibe, so he went out and found a bus stop sign from a local prop house in an attempt to mask the city’s distinctive appearance. “I didn’t want it to look Canadian,” he said. There was one key element he forgot about, however: A Toronto Parking Authority sign affixed to a telephone pole can be seen in a closing long shot. “It kind of bothers me, because I really did want to take it out of the city,” says Abraham.

Much of the spots’ appeal is down to a pair of actors named Henry Tran and Michael Masurkevitch. Abraham spent a couple of weeks combing through listings on the cast and crew jobs site Mandy before finding them. “Actors are such strange creatures—you never know what you’re going to get,” said Abraham. “But I was really pleased with the both of them.”

Not that there weren’t some minor hiccups. The night before the shoot, Tran called Abraham to tell him he’d have to leave by 3 p.m. on shoot day because he had to get home to his daughter. “I said to him ‘Henry, if you leave tomorrow before 3 p.m., it’ll be the last thing you ever do—because I’ll kill you.

“I literally called my mother and said ‘Can you watch this actor’s baby for a few hours?'” he says. “I think Henry realized very quickly ‘I don’t know this man, he wants me to act in a briefcase speaker commercial—maybe I shouldn’t leave my infant daughter with [his mother].'” The situation was finally resolved when Tran found a baby-sitter.

It remains to be seen just how much of a consumer market there is for a briefcase speaker. Since launching in July, Bassmaker has sold a modest 600 units, but it has ramped up production and inventory ahead of the new ad campaign. Orr says he’s also had promising discussions with beer and some sports media brands about creating custom Bassmaker units. “We can be any brand,” he says.

Abraham, meanwhile, says that the uncertainty about where Bassmaker goes from here is part of the allure. “As Stewart and I like to say, ‘If it doesn’t make sense, we’re gonna roll with it.'”

Chris Powell