Ari Sherman, Creative Advertising

Smells Like Teen Spirit: Kurt Cobain, Forrest Gump and the generation between them

Posted in Advertising, Branding, Story Telling, Uncategorized by Ari Sherman on April 5, 2013


19 years ago today, as Paramount Studios was deep into the launch campaign for the Robert Zemeckis helmed Tom Hanks movie that would, to its surprise, wildly exceed all expectations and become one of it’s most memorable movies, and a huge Box Office Hit, the world was shocked by the tragic, untimely death of Kurt Cobain. His passing hit a mass youth audience with the same devastating impact that previous generations had suffered over the traumatic losses of iconic greats like John Lennon, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix.

About a year before, at Frankfurt Gips Balkind West where I was Associate Creative Director, Paramount Pictures came to us with a very appealing yet equally challenging project. Looking back from today’s perspective, it’s hard to imagine how one of the top box office hits of all time could ever have been perceived as a marketing challenge, but Paramount wasn’t crazy when they told us it was. They were just focused on the obvious. Forrest Gump was about someone who would have already been well into his forties by the time the film was released. His life story, interwoven as it was with history focused mainly in a decade that began 30 years earlier, seemed like an engaging story that unfortunately would most likely at best capture a target audience that was middle aged and older, in keeping with its distinct plot elements. And they would have been right, except for one factor no one was counting on, something about Forrest Gump the character smelled a lot like Teen Spirit.

Blame it on the numbers, the over reliance of a usually very astute Studio marketing group on research and a ‘by the book’ read of demographics and what was believed to appeal to target audience quadrants. Blame it on the mindset that presumes anything that can be labeled as history is boring, that Gump’s character was interesting, but that a life story focused on the sixties wasn’t going to find anything but a somewhat less than mass-market core middle aged audience. Blame it on not knowing that the voice of a generation was about to be tragically stripped from it, that so many teens, with their strong propensity to identify with the other, the different, the misfit, would suddenly lose the figure they identified with most, and need someone to help them process that loss, and begin to find themselves again.

What had we done with Gump up until then? For starters we had to work with the title, a challenge in itself. As two words go, ‘Forrest Gump’ didn’t offer a lot to the uninformed. Maybe Winston Groom, who wrote the novel it was based on, had created a character with a distinctive name not unlike his. But the book wasn’t a massive bestseller or a widely recognized piece of Pop culture. We needed to work with the title first, a task that fell mainly to my hands, as a Creative Director chiefly responsible for copy at Frankfurt Gips Balkind.

Fortunately I had Gump himself to work with. One of his about to be famous Gumpisms, those distinctive turns of phrase of his, inspired a fun, somewhat breakthrough answer for us. The movie postured that the oft used comment ‘Shit happens’ was actually coined by Gump himself, during a signature moment that marked his stint of service in the Viet Nam war. It was an easy, if bold mental leap to get to ‘Gump happens’, a quirky but intriguing first introduction to Forrest Gump that we would unleash on an unaware general public. Before long billboards were up featuring those two words in big, loud type on a white background. ‘Gump Happens’ invited audiences to ask ‘What? What’s Gump? And why does it happen?’ hopefully priming them to be receptive to our follow up, the campaign that would launch a massive success for Tom Hanks, Robert Zemeckis and Paramount. photo-1

That campaign is now box office history. Visually, it broke through the clutter with the truly unexpected, Tom Hanks posed with his back to us, seated on the film’s signature bus stop bench.  It was a bold, iconic approach, relying on Tom Hanks star powered name to give the audiences a taste of his character’s quirkiness instead of the usual, easy ‘Big Head’ movie poster solve. And accompanying that maverick image, was a line of copy we didn’t realize could ever accomplish so much, inviting the audience to see the world differently by seeing it through the very unique eyes of Forrest Gump. By the time the film came out Kurt Cobain, sadly, was dead. Here was a guy whose music, style and distinct personality had galvanized a generation, rocketing grunge to the top of the charts, and taking popular music, fashion and the hearts and souls of millions with it. Like every paradigm shifting star before him, Kurt Cobain’s impact was to re-brand Rock and alter culture, he was different, he was a rebel, and teens, feeling different and rebellious themselves, fell in love with everything about him. He questioned, he reinterpreted, he forged his own path. He saw the world differently and they saw the world differently with him. Just like Forrest Gump. And therein lay a twist of unexpected marketing genius.

Forrest Gump opened at about 24 million, not a bad first weekend by the standards of the nineties, one surely attributable to Tom Hanks’ immense appeal, along with a smart marketing campaign. But it’s a long, long way from 24 million to $329,694,499 Domestic gross…let alone a worldwide take of $677,387,716. Had the film merely done reasonably well with it’s targeted middle-age adult audience and the six Oscars it went on to earn, Paramount would have been more than happy. The last thing they imagined was that it would become a mega-hit that would be 1994’s top box office success, and go on to become a timeless classic. But they had no idea the teen audience would ever find it, need it, or with their avid movie attendance and repeat attendance, make such a huge hit out of it.

So what’s the final piece, and the lesson, in the link between Kurt Cobain and Forrest? That data and demographics don’t tell a complete story, that great creative comes from creative thinking and problem solving. We didn’t try to target the teen audience for Forrest Gump, we never could have imagined Kurt Cobain would die as, sadly, he did, nor would we ever have overtly exploited or wanted to exploit a loss so tragic. But we did love Forrest. And we wanted the world to love him. And the more we thought about it, the more we realized that it wasn’t the history he lived through, the challenges he faced, or the circumstances he had to overcome that made him lovable. It was the way he saw his life, the way he talked about it, the way he processed it. In short it was experiencing seeing the world the way Forrest Gump did that encompassed the movie’s strongest asset, just like experiencing the way Kurt Cobain looked at the world was, and remains,  what made his songs, and ultimately him, so incredibly life altering for so many.And that’s it. An audience of young teens flocked to Forrest because he was different, just like we told them, and they felt different. They found in Forrest someone who was often confused, and hurt, just like they were confused and hurt, but who had a unique ability to come back and process the losses and hurdles of life by finding strength and reasserting his identity through his own, fresh approaches – just like they would. Kurt was gone, Forrest had arrived, and a young generation was learning to absorb, shape and be shaped by history, even sad history, just like Gump had. The movie will always be with us. And so will Cobain’s music. Powerful, raw, edgy, tragic, exuberant, wounded, defiant, angry, sometimes sad, sometimes ironic…and as different and hard and vulnerable as anything art and culture can give us. Through it, Kurt remains in a sense very much alive. Long live teen spirit.

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