Back-to-school campaigns make me anxious. They evoke that Sunday-night-and-I-haven’t-done-my-homework feeling in a sure sign that the summer’s waning. This year, despite some encouraging economic reports, it’s looking like a depressing September all around. Forecasts suggest that shoppers will keep their wallets zipped, and major retailers are responding with uninspired price promotions and coupon drops. There’s even evidence that the kid “nag factor” has lost potency (though not in my house, unfortunately.)
That’s why the whimsy of Office Max’s “Penny Pranks” is appealing. I admired the “Elf Yourself” holiday campaign from a couple of years ago, because it actually sucked me in…or, more specifically, had family members from three different states suck me in, which, naturally, is the whole idea. Penny Pranks isn’t interactive like the dancing elves, but its videos have racked up over a million views since the first batch launched a year ago.
The new videos are more polished than last season’s – not necessarily a good thing – but they again feature the talented improv actor Matt McCarthy. This time he’s in a ritzy townhouse, posing as the quirky guardian to a 10-year-old boy who’s heir to…never mind. The point is that the Punk’d-style payoff is still there. After comic haggling with unsuspecting sellers of rare collectibles, the duo reveal they intend to pay with – you guessed it – bags and bags of pennies. The orange-haired McCarthy is silly, but also sly, like the pudgy love child of Carrot Top and Borat. And, he wears a kilt as well as any guy I’ve seen.
The campaign fits nicely into these penny-pinching times, and the prank videos mesh well with the store promotion offering various products for a penny. The YouTube channel also does a good job of melding a Depression-era-type price promotion with social media in all its contemporary coolness. It remains to be seen whether it actually creates traffic for Office Max. But, it does differentiate it, stealing ownership of the one-cent sales that are ubiquitous in the category. And, while it hasn’t exactly banished my back-to-school blues, it candy coats the sales pitch – and the dreaded return to reality – with a little levity, which is the kind of viral thing you’re glad to see going around.