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‘We want it!’: Behind the scenes on the city’s hit ad campaign Add to ...

It’s not every city that sees a commercial about its waste-management program become an international hit. Then again, Chuck and Vince – Toronto’s newly famous, slogan-spewing fake garbage collectors – aren’t your usual waste-management pitch men.

Their unexpected rise to prominence started in September, when the City of Toronto unveiled a series of online videos featuring two largish, energetic garbage collectors who told viewers, with great insistence, that if anyone had electronic waste, “We want it!”

Chuck and Vince were meant to be one-off characters in an online campaign, but they quickly found themselves in demand. The ads were fun, the slogan was infectious, and the product didn’t resemble anything a municipal communications department would normally produce.

Tens of thousands of viewers rolled in, and with them accolades and global interest. CNN showcased the ads, as did sites with global readerships like Boing Boing and Treehugger, as well as blogs from India to Australia. Mayor David Miller set about promoting the series online; so, eventually, did comedian Eddie Izzard, who declared himself a fan.

Now, instead of having been left on the curb at the end of their contract, Chuck and Vince – and the actors who play them – have been picked up by the city for ongoing public campaigns.

“These two guys, I knew they would have an immediate appeal,” said Pat Pirisi, the creative director behind the spots at Publicis, an ad agency, “but it just became a sensation.”

To play Vince and Chuck, respectively, Mr. Pirisi cast two local Second City veterans, Marty Adams and Mike Nahrgang (who goes by “Nug”).

The original ads, promoting the city’s curbside e-waste recycling program, were partly scripted and partly improvised. They spoof Toronto’s ubiquitous, low-rent cash-for-gold ads, but where the likes of Russell Oliver demand viewers’ gold, Chuck and Vince ask – over, and over, and over – for their recycling.

“Cell phones? We want it! Computers from the pre-Internet age? We want it! TVs encased in mahogany? We want it!” they say. Later: “I’m a robot! Throw me out on garbage day! We want it!” In some shots, they’re surrounded by falling balloons. Occasionally, they wear gorilla masks.

The creative process behind the original ads, said Mr. Adams, came down to “grab stuff, walk up to the camera, and say things.” Producers fed the improvisers props, ideas and lines from a bare-bones script, while actual, non-phony city workers looked on, bemused.

After the initial success of the spots, the city and Publicis, which had already been contracted by the city to run several subsequent advertising campaigns, decided to carry the characters over. A new series of ads has been produced for print, radio, and the Internet; Chuck and Vince now repeat their slogan from bus shelters. The city even bought wewantit.ca, directing readers to their recycling homepage. The actors say that live appearances are now being mooted.

“What I think it does is create personality for the waste management division,” said Mr. Pirisi.

At the city, Pat Barrett, one of the communications staff who manage the campaign, seemed to appreciate a reporter’s suggestion that the ads didn’t strike a typically corporate tone.

“Hooray!” she said, before noting that, for all the improv, the ads’ messages are tightly controlled. “For us to stand out, and not be overly bureaucratic, and not have too much lecturing, is best.”

For the actors, meanwhile, a high-profile campaign that actually allowed them some creative control has been a boon.

“Trust an actor, auditioning for a commercial that is actually funny is very, very rare,” wrote Mr. Nahrgang in an e-mail. “Also rare: endorsing a concept/product you actually support.”

With sudden ubiquity, however, comes recognition. This can be a mixed blessing.

“So many people walk up to me and say, ‘Hey. Do you want my stereo?’,” says Mr. Adams. “I literally don’t have any idea what they’re talking about. So I say, ‘No, I don’t.’ And they say, ‘Are you sure you don’t WANT IT?’”

“And then I go, “Oh, right. We want it.’”

Special to The Globe and Mail

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