There's a TV commercial for a credit counselor that never ceases to make me laugh when I see it. Two women are standing near a water cooler, stationed incongruously in the middle of a green, placid field. One woman has a baboon on her shoulder, but she seems not to notice this. Instead, she is talking with her colleague about her beautiful, expensive jewelry. The colleague suggests that the woman should "do something" about the "debt monkey" she has on her back, but the woman merely blinks and says, "What monkey?"
OK, I'll admit it: I like seeing monkeys on TV. Let's face it, some people do. My wife, not so much -- but I truly used to enjoy those Tim Kazurinsky chimp sketches on SNL, as well as Lancelot Link, Secret Chimp and those ads for CareerBuilder.com, featuring one poor guy working with a bunch of chimps in an office. Call it a weakness.
I was surprised to learn the other night, however, that one of our friends, who works for a local film/TV production company, actually helped to produce the "debt monkey" ad. Her "backstory" of the ad was slightly fascinating. Pennsylvania apparently has a law that prohibits commercial activities in which certain exotic animals (baboons included, I guess) have contact with people who are not animal training or zoo professionals. Since actors in commercials are not exempt from this law, it is pretty much settled that no monkey commercials can be filmed in Pennsylvania.
Casting about for a nearby alternative, our friend called authorities in West Virginia, who apparently confirmed that anyone can do just about anything they want with a monkey in that fair state -- so the entire production crew, along with actors, baboon and baboon wranglers, drove south to an unnamed West Virginia college campus, where the ad was shot. (There was no particular reason for the ad to be set in a green, placid field, other than the fact that this was the ad agency's conception. I'd still like to see them in the office, personally.)
It's not as easy as you might think to put a baboon in your commercial, in case you were thinking of it. There was a list of rules provided by the trainer that the entire production staff had to abide by in order to keep from irritating the baboon, including avoiding eye contact with the baboon. The shoot went off without a hitch, however, as the baboon was apparently able to size up the situation quickly, determine the "Alpha male" status of the ad's director and roll with the director's whims.
The baboon shoot was a piece of cake, however, compared to a recent ad that our friend helped to produce for a Florida real estate developer. Playing on the theme of being an "environmentally friendly" developer, the ad shows squirrels and deer in a "white-room" background. For this ad, our friend sent for two "professional" squirrels, Louis and Millie, that were recently featured in the film Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The squirrels, based in Florida, were flown to Pittsburgh in cages and brought to a South Side studio, ready for their close-ups. While they take direction decently enough, it has to be remembered that they are wild animals, a fact discernible in the scratches all over the neck and chest of the squirrels' professional handler.
Getting the deer for the shoot was a little more challenging. Apparently Pennsylvania has a law (of course they do) that prohibits the importation of live deer to the state, so our friend had to search around the state for captive, docile deer, and a sympathetic owner. In call after call, deer owners simply laughed at our friend, until one eastern Pennsylvania deer owner decided to step up to the plate, bringing her young bucks Robbie and Mikey to the South Side. Robbie and Mikey had never been in a commercial before, but acquitted themselves quite well under the circumstances, with some professional training help from the aforementioned scratched-up squirrel trainer. Our friend said they were as docile and friendly as puppies.
It does seem like a lot of trouble to get spokesmammals on camera, but I guess as long as dunderheads like me keep laughing at monkeys on TV, they'll be going to the trouble to do it.
Oh, and in case you are wondering, the squirrels stayed in a room at the Hilton before returning to Florida, but the deer had to be content to stay in a trailer in the parking lot while their owners stayed in a Greentree motel before making their return trip home.