Making the rounds over the past few weeks, If I Made A Commercial for Trader Joe’s takes a personal approach to advertising the popular grocery store, but despite the fact that it’s a catchy, well-made salute to Trader Joe’s many quirks, the video is not a viral ad campaign. Instead, it is a 100 percent, unauthorized labor of love by Carl Willat, who spent the past two-and-a-half years filming the random snippets of footage that make up the video on his cell phone before uploading to YouTube.
Willat, with whom I spoke via phone, is a hardcore Trader Joe’s enthusiast who, at the time the idea for the video came about, was visiting the store as often as three times a day. “Our studio used to be near there,” he said, “and we’d go over to check out the demos, buy our breakfast, lunch and dinner, and, you know, take a break.” One day while walking back to work, one of Willat’s co-workers began creating lyrics to the tune of Antonio Carlos Jobim’s Waters of March (which was another office obsession at the time), and the concept came together.
Willat’s work as a commercial director and animator has included spots like the Hersey Kisses We Wish You A Merry Christmas ad that plays every holiday season (“It’s starting to show its age,” he mentioned. “I’d like to do an HD version of it”). But he was beginning to feel that the reel for the company he started in 2003, Carl’s Fine Films, was a bit too commercial, and that it’d be nice to include something personal that also worked as a piece of advertising. “I’m interested in the idea of creating a new genre of advertising, the heartfelt commercial, that really expresses how you feel about a product or store,” he said. “It’s a whole new area of advertising, where there’s much less client involvement — they can just say yes or no.”
The final product showcases Willat’s unique sensibility, and also provided him with an opportunity to teach himself Final Cut Pro and After Effects. There’s a deceptively large amount of effects work in the piece, including composting name tags onto the Hawaiian shirts of actors he brought into the store to pose as employees.
Because the video was in production for so long, some of the items mentioned in the song are no longer available at the store, such as the Fiji apples that are sold in a box. But that’s just part of the Trader Joe’s experience. The key thing for Willat, and other fans of the video with whom I’ve spoken, is that it captures the mysterious essence of Trader Joe’s, which “will make you fall in love with a product and then take it away. There’s something very poignant about that. You keep going back to see if it will return.” As of this writing, no one from Trader Joe’s has contacted Willat regarding the ad, which he’s OK with, taking little credit for the video’s success (after being linked on Boing Boing, it’s currently at about 150,000 views). “People love Trader Joe’s — I’m just basking in the reflected glow of the store.”
It’s easy to write off If I Made A Commercial For Trader Joe’s as cute, but what makes it a three-minute triumph is that it’s a complete portrait of the store, celebrating its customers and eclectic merchandise while not glossing over its flaws. It’s actually honest, which isn’t something you see a lot in advertising. If the future of online content continues to move towards branded entertainment (which, according to Greg Goodfried of lonelygirl15, is where the real money is at the moment), I can only hope this is the direction it goes.