In 2018, the Shaw Communications-owned telco brand Freedom Mobile switched its brand personality from cuddly to acerbic, giving its two-year-old mascot Freddy the Freedom Bear the heave-ho and bringing aboard Canadian actor Will Arnett.
The Arrested Development star has quietly become a reliably entertaining pitchman for the brand, bringing his arch sense of humour to an advertising category that is simultaneously ubiquitous yet all-too-often ignorable. He has even survived an agency change (the Freedom Mobile assignment moved from Rain43 to Rethink in September), a sure sign that it’s a winning approach.
Arnett offers Freedom a certain degree of recognition and cultural cachet, but unlike other celebs whose mere presence can sometimes be the whole basis for an ad (“Hey look, we got Kendall Jenner for this Pepsi commercial. Cool, right?”), the brand still needs to give him something to say. Despite its somewhat unwieldy title, its latest ad, “Back to School Locked Out,” is a perfect example of how a pitchman can bring personality to a brand.
It opens on Arnett bidding goodbye to his children as they return to school after spending most of the past year-and-a-half at home. “Have a great first day. Text me if you need anything,” he says in his one-of-a-kind voice, a kind of hybrid of Kermit the Frog and Michael Keaton’s Batman (which no doubt provided the inspiration for the Arnett-voiced title character in 2017’s The Lego Batman Movie)
The spot then moves indoors, where we see Arnett applying multiple locks to the front door before taking the extra step of placing a chair under the doorknob and then screwing a board across the frame. It’s as if he’s guarding against a zombie apocalypse, but after more than a year defined by the rigours of home-schooling, it’s a scenario to which any parent can relate.
Mad Men star Jon Hamm has become Canada’s most familiar celebrity pitchman because of his high-profile and prolific (35 pieces of content and counting) work with SkipTheDishes, while Schitt’s Creek star Annie Murphy has emerged as another go-to in the past year, appearing in work for brands including Hello Fresh, Hudson’s Bay and Nintendo.
These types of endorsements might seem insignificant within the broader arc of a celebrity’s career, but they can have a lasting impact. To this day, my mother-in-law can’t remember the name of former Star Trek star William Shatner, instead calling him “Loblaws” because of his extensive work with the brand in the 1970s.
Arnett might not be boldly going where no celebrity has gone before, but he’s doing it with panache and a welcome sense of fun.