[Clears throat] Why do termites hate classical music?
[Dramatic pause] They are decomposers.

At best, this corny joke elicits a groan in a comedy club (and perhaps a chuckle from an entomologist). But what happens when a large, animatronic termite puppet delivers this same line onstage (and bombs)? Hilarity ensues, and that was the idea behind “Termites Aren’t Funny,” a clever new ad campaign from Orkin and parent company Rollins (#1).

The ad campaign includes a series of termite-delivered one-liner jokes that end with Orkin messaging such as “Termites aren’t funny. $5 billion a year in damage is nothing to laugh at.” The spots run on radio and television and they are especially popular on social media.

Orkin’s animatronic termite tries his hand at stand-up comedy in a new ad campaign.

The ads are the brainchild of Orkin’s advertising agency, The Richards Group, which sought a memorable and shareable message that would stand out in the social media space. “Our creative team played a lot of ‘What if?’ games that involved imagining bizarre and unexpected scenarios that would put the issue of termites in the ‘spotlight,’” said David Morring, creative group head/copywriter, The Richards Group. “Most importantly, we wanted to speak in a very human way about the scope and potential scale of destruction caused by termites each year. ‘Termites Aren’t Funny’ delivers all of that in a simple, direct way.”

One of the ideas that came out of these brainstorming sessions was to revisit the animatronic termite from Orkin’s/Richards Group’s “Big Bugs” campaign, which last ran in 2012. In “Big Bugs,” a life-sized termite delivers the line “Is that oak?” and that was the inspiration for The Richards Group to explore other ways to further leverage this character.

The Orkin marketing team worked directly with the brand planners at The Richards Group to develop a specific strategy for the termite messaging. “We boil all of our research, market analysis, and consumer insights into a single-most persuasive idea — one sentence that we give to the creative teams to focus their message,” said Morring, who admitted that the creative team did take some “artistic licensing” with the termite’s appearance. “We are fully aware that the termite is not anatomically correct — something our knowledgeable Orkin men and women were quick to point out in our first campaign using the character.”

Next up was the fun part — writing jokes and bringing the concept to reality. Enter the copywriters at The Richards Group, and the directorial team of Ben Hurst and Dave Thomas, all of whom wrote the original content jokes. “The trick was writing ‘non-funny’ jokes that were still funny,” said Morring.

What really makes these spots work are the nuances, such as the termite’s cadence in delivering the lines; how he scans the room for reactions; and the way he delivers classic comedian follow-up lines when jokes aren’t working (e.g., [clears throat] “Can we get a little more mic here?”). Said Morring, “We cast for the voice of the termite. Our voice talent, Damian Cecere, had a lot of improv chops and, together with the writers and directors, the delivery of the jokes was honed and refined. But a lot of the magic also happens spontaneously in the recording studio and on the set. Ad libs are always welcome.”

While the project was a labor of love for all involved that’s not to say there weren’t challenges involved when working with a large animatronic termite. Fortunately, the Richards team had a lot of experience working with the puppeteers (from Legacy Effects) on the previous ‘Big Bugs’ campaign. “One controlled the head, others controlled the arms, mandibles, antennas, etc. There’s a lot collaboration and rehearsal with the puppeteers to get a full range of ‘reactions’ from the termite and then it all has to be synced and painted out in post-production.”

So how is the ad campaign doing thus far? Social media is perhaps the best place to measure its success or failure, and the ads continue to be shared on YouTube, Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. At press time, the “Why are termites so good at math?” ad has almost 2 million views on YouTube and the “Why do termites hate classical music” ad has more than 1 million views on YouTube.

 “We’re very pleased with the early results and excited to build up momentum going into peak termite season,” said Cam Glover, managing director, Rollins.

What about plans to use the stand-up insect/comedian concept for future campaigns? Said Morring, “We’ll keep that a surprise, but we’re pretty sure the ants, cockroaches and rats would love to get on the mic and share a few one-liners if given the chance.” — Brad Harbison