Scaramouche! Scaramouche! Are the Muppets back to stay?

Has Disney finally figured out how to deal with the Muppets?

Yesterday, medicine Beg to Differ introduced you to the brilliant new Bohemian Rhapsody parody from the Muppets – but with no brand focused commentary at all. Since then, try we’ve realized that the big story here isn’t the video itself (or the others we’ve included below). The big branding story is the Muppet brand itself and its current caretaker: Disney.


Keeping your Beakers and Bunsens apart

A Disneyland attraction that people liked, but didn't recognize the characters.

When I showed the Bohemian Rhapsody video to my kids – aged 3 and almost 5 – they laughed and laughed and laughed, just as my wife and I had done. Of course, they totally missed the parody, but it was heartening to me that they seemed to love the characters and hooted along with that trademark goofy, over-the-top vaudeville campiness.

But when I asked my 3-year old what he’d liked about it, he said: “Those Wild Things were funny.”

Anaheim, we have a problem.

It’s not like we haven;t done our parental duty by exposing him to the Muppets. This is a kid who has an Animal doll, 50 Sesame Street books, and has sat and watched the Muppets on YouTube, as well as the season 1&2 DVDs with the family. But even he couldn’t identify the “Muppet” brand, and couldn’t recall any names except Kermit and Miss Piggy.

Turns out my son is the market in microcosm (I’m so proud). Kids don’t get the Muppets. And I blame Disney.

Disney’s problem with Muppets

Since acquiring the Muppet brand in 2004 Disney has been widely criticized by fans for under-utilizing the Muppets characters and failing to re-invigorate the brand for a younger generation. For an exhaustive insider background, see Jim Hill’s blog post from 2007.

But in brief, I think this verbiage from the February 2004 press release captures the problem in humourless, corporatese:

The transaction includes all Muppet assets, including the Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Gonzo and Animal characters, the Muppet film and television library, and all associated copyrights and trademarks…

Now read that again in your best Rizzo the Rat voice to hear how ugly, inhuman and unintentionally funny it becomes. These are cartoon puppet critters people!

Roadkill? Kermit wondering what the heck he's doing in front of an SUV.
Roadkill? Kermit wondering what the heck he’s doing in front of an SUV.

It’s not easy being green (but it’s worth a try).

And it went downhill from there. Disney efforts have included an aborted attempt to make Kermit more “edgy” for his 5oth birthday in 2005, and a tone-deaf attempt to exploit the lead characters as commercial shills. The Ford Explorer ad shown here is a great example.

Demographic fact: Muppets are loved by nostalgic 30-40 somethings. Frog-leap of logic: Hey! Kermit can sell SUVs!

But through it all, the big problems that were festering under the surface were 1) a failure to generate any significant new Muppets content (or that the new content was bad), 2) erosion of the brand equity of secondary characters, and 3) lack of respect for the real brand qualities that made the Muppets so charming and relevant, and sustain them to this day in the hearts of 4) the brand’s real owners: who are you, me, and hopefully, our kids.

The Muppets of the mind

So that’s why it was so nice to see yesterday’s Bohemian Rhapsody video get hundreds of thousands of hits and quickly become a trending topic on Twitter. It’s also nice to learn that more videos are coming (watch for “Dust in the Wind”, “American Woman”, “Popcorn”, “Carol of the Bells” and “Stand By Me”) and that a new Muppet movie is in the works – among other interesting projects.

But most heartening of all, there’s the tone of the new content – which finally shows signs that Disney actually gets the Muppets. The new stuff is funny, and the characters seem like themselves again. And that’s why I felt like I had to share that video immediately.

To us, the real owners of the brand, the Muppets are about creating a warm space where comedy, pop-culture, kid-culture, and pure unadulterated silliness can come together. The real Muppets in our heads never take themselves too seriously (see the “assets” quote above), and they are also never mean-spirited or even “edgy” (they’re refreshingly nerdy actually – kind of like Queen music).

Oh, and take note: the Muppets in our heads would never sell an SUV, so they won’t help us buy one either.

Welcome back Muppets

But lest we be accused of getting too serious ourselves (we beg to differ!), below are a few more recent YouTube videos featuring some great second-string Muppets.

Bohemian Rhapsody – in case you missed it

Beaker does Ode to Joy:

The Swedish Chef carves a pumpkin:

Sam the Eagle gets patriotic:

What if restaurants charged like creative agencies? The other side…

A few months ago, information pills this video produced by Scofield Editorial, symptoms Inc. made the rounds virally among us creative industry types. It’s well done, price and it poses a compelling question: what if customers in normal retail settings – where no one ever questions the price of things – behaved the way marketing people often treat their creative vendors? If you haven’t seen it, watch it.
Then read my response from the other side of the table .

The original video:

My tribe of creatives made this a minor YouTube sensation, with 1.1 Million views and climbing. Why? Because it’s true: the work we do is often not treated with the respect it deserves, or valued as highly as it ought to be – and certainly not as highly as we think it ought to be.

Which brings us to the other side. I remember my first experiences as a client-side marketing manager dealing with a big-city, big-ticket advertising firm. And I can tell you, clients aren’t the only ones with a problem saying “the price is the price”.

My response: a script for a viral YouTube video.

(Imagine it in a YouTube frame with millions of views under it. Then imagine laughing heartily and forwarding it to all your marketing industry buddies using the link below.)

What if restaurants charged like creative agencies?

A Funny, Poignant, & Wildly Popular Viral Video

(© 2009 Dennis Van Staalduinen – contact me if you want to shoot this. But note that I call dibs on the waiter part.)


(Restaurant interior. Attractive professional couple is seen wrapping up their meal.  A somewhat arrogant-looking waiter is seen hovering in the background.)

(MALE DINER waves WAITER over to table.)

WAITER: (With a heavy euro accent) Yes sir. Everything is all right.

MALE DINER: Fine, fine.

WAITER: Of course it is.

MALE DINER: We’d just like to settle up.

WAITER: You will receive your bill then, yes? Wait one moment.

(WAITER LEAVES. FEMALE DINER leans toward MALE DINER, hushed voice)

FEMALE DINER: Are you going to tip him? He was obnoxious, arrogant, and he kept pushing stuff at us that was way different from what we ordered.

MALE DINER: Well yes, but we’re done now. Let’s just pay and get out of here…

FEMALE DINER: Then he through a hissy fit when I tried to send the undercooked beef back.

MALE DINER: He’s a creative soul honey, they’re sensitive…

FEMALE DINER: Oh, and then there was the “Brainstorming session” over the wine…

MALE DINER: Honey, we were looking for a creative option… Oh, shhh! He’s coming back!

(WAITER re-appears. Hands large portfolio to MALE DINER, who unzips and scans it)

MALE DINER: Oh, that’s very nice. Full colour. See that honey? Very creative presentation…

FEMALE DINER: (looking at price) Hey! $1,159! What’s going on here?!?! We only ordered $100 dollars worth of food and wine!

MALE DINER: What?(looks again) This is wrong. We asked you to help us keep our bill under $100!

WAITER: And I did. Look. Everything is itemized. Your food and wine came to $98.50 with a few dollars for tax.

MALE DINER: But we already paid you that weird $25 retainer when we walked in…

WAITER: Yes yes, standard industry practice.

MALE DINER: Then, you asked for a $50 fee when you brought our food…

WAITER: For phase 2 deliverables. Yes yes. All in the proposal I submitted, and all standard industry practice.

MALE DINER: Right, so I’ll give you $25, and… you can keep the change.

WAITER: (icily) Hup, hup, hup. Very generous sir. But. Let’s look at the invoice shall we?

(he snatches the bill and begins pointing and gesticulating)

You have forgotten about disbursements, expenses, colour photo-copying charges for menus and your bill, the standard kitchen service fees, revision fees for re-cooking your beef madame – that is not free! Then licensing fees for brainstorming music, licensing for third party ingredients in your food, professional consulting fees for the Chef and myself….

FEMALE DINER: (grabbing the bill back) And this item: “Yum Factory”. What is that?

WAITER: (changes tone to pride) Why, of course that is our proprietary kitchen management process. Presumably that’s why you came to us in the first place….

MALE DINER: No, we came because we were hungry, and because we had a bit of money left over in this month’s budget for one special meal, and we thought we’d go high end for once…

WAITER: Well, you forget that we have costs too! An expensive downtown location; exquisite interior design; silver cutlery; the owner’s new Aston Martin; our Foosball table – hmm?!?

FEMALE DINER: But we didn’t choose to spend money on those things, You did!

WAITER: Ah, but you chose US!  Perhaps next time you will consider not coming to a respected provider of high quality creative output, and instead go to some… some… street-corner taco stand!!


MALE DINER: Say, honey. That’s not a bad idea. After those tiny portions and all that creative wanking, I’m still hungry.

FEMALE DINER: You’re right, a simple taco at a fair price sounds really good right about now.

(they leave)

WAITER: But wait… your bill!!

(gradually losing accent) Come back! We can negotiate!

We have this great Foosball table! Maybe I can let you play….

(he sits down dejected) Ah man. How am I going to pay for my accent lessons now?

(fade to black)


That link again for forwarding:

Again, if anyone wants to make this into a viral video sensation, let me know.