The Spot:A title card identifies three casually dressed men as Cabot Creamery's "Naturally Aged Cheddar Hunks." Cut to a shot of the men sitting around a small table, drinking beer, and eating cheese. Two of the men are unfamiliar, but the third inspires a double-take: It's Luis Guzmán, the Hispanic character actor. One of the men asks Guzmán if he has any exciting new roles. Guzmán replies that he likes this one—"guy eating Cabot cheese." The other man asks Guzmán how he would feel about playing a guy eating some other kind of cheese. "Not Cabot?" Guzmán asks. "What am I, some kind of maniac?"
(Click here to watch other ads in the "Cheddar Hunks" campaign.)
With the notable exception of a certain PSA from the 1980s that I will go to my grave knowing by heart, cheese ads have never been groundbreaking. Your typical cheese spot looks a lot like this one, also from Cabot: black-and-white stills of salt-of-the-earth farmers, a color tracking shot of a mountainous cheddar slab, and a voiceover describing the craftsmanship that goes into each and every wedge. It was thus with some surprise that I first encountered Cabot's "Cheddar Hunks" ads. Was that Luis Guzmán selling Vermont Extra Sharp?
Even people who don't know Guzmán by name probably recognize his face. His television and film credits are prodigious. In the '80s and early '90s, he showed up on all of the big cop shows, usually playing some variation on the Latino tough. Eventually, he earned the attention of a couple of independent-minded directors who began giving him better, if not much bigger, roles. Paul Thomas Anderson cast him in Boogie Nights, Magnolia, and Punch-Drunk Love. Steven Soderbergh, recognizing Guzmán's comedic gift, used him to great effect in Out of Sight, Traffic, and The Limey, in which he played opposite Terrance Stamp's cockney ex-con. Here, the two men order a drink:
Guzmán's ability to do so much with so little has earned him a following of sorts, though he's hardly a household name. It's not as if Cabot had recruited an A-list hunk like Jake Gyllenhaal (a repeat customer at L.A. cheese purveyor Joan's on Third), or, for that matter, a B-list star somehow associated with Vermont—Bob Newhart, say. Why would Cabot turn to Guzmán?
My initial thought was that perhaps Cabot was trying to break into a new market. Vermont may be about as diverse as the '86 Celtics, but that doesn't mean Cabot couldn't try selling its wares to America's growing Hispanic population. Maybe their research showed that Latinos cook with as much cheese as the Chipotle menu suggests they do. Was Guzmán meant to be Cabot's ambassador to Hispanic America?
Not exactly. It turns out that when Guzmán isn't on set, he lives and works as a gentleman farmer near Cabot, Vermont. Roberta MacDonald, Cabot's senior vice president for marketing, told me she runs into him around town all the time. So when she began developing a new series of TV spots, she gave Guzmán a call and asked if he'd star in them. He said he'd be delighted. Apparently Guzmán really does love Cabot cheese; he even offered to do the ads for less than his usual rate.
But MacDonald says that she didn't use Guzmán merely because he was available. Cabot's market research shows that while their cheese is eaten predominantly by men, it is purchased mostly by women. She wanted a series of ads that would convey to women that when guys get together to drink beer and eat cheese (which is not often enough, by the way), the cheese they want to find in the fridge is Cabot.
To this end, Guzmán is something of an inspired choice. Dressed in a checked flannel shirt, he makes a convincing average Joe. Yet at the same time, there's something familiar about that ever-so-slightly porcine mug—you want to stop and figure out who he is and how you know him. If you have to listen to him talk about cheese in the meantime, so be it.
Of course, if all Cabot wanted was an average-looking guy you vaguely remember, they could have asked Howard Dean. Guzmán also brings to the ads his comedic touch, which typically manifests itself in a sort of menacing deadpan. In the funniest of the three spots, Guzmán essentially threatens to gun down one of his fellow Cheddar Hunks if their supply of cheese runs out. (Cabot decided not to air that one on television, though it is posted on their Web site.)
This strategy is a far cry from close-ups of waxed cheese wheels, and MacDonald acknowledged that she's heard some complaints about the ads. "This isn't Cabot; this isn't Vermont," one supermarket owner told her. The ads may not be very Vermont; but they are Cabot. The creamery has always had a bit of a silly streak, akin to the playfulness of Ben & Jerry's, just less hippy-dippy. In this 2007 radio spot, for instance, Cabot imagined a world in which toll-booth attendants handed out slices of cheddar in lieu of change. If only!
Grade: B+. In our locavore age, it might seem like Cabot should stick to pitching itself as the farmer-owned, New England cooperative that it is. But MacDonald argued that these days, it's easy enough for any cheese manufacturer—be it co-op or conglomerate—to churn out an ad with stoic farmers and string accompaniment. The Guzmán spots have an oddball charm that sticks in your head, and this, at base, is what Cabot is after. Most of their cheeses aren't in competition with that raw-milk Ouray your local cheesemonger has been pushing on you. They're trying to beat out the generic brand in your grocery's dairy case. Getting people to remember the name Cabot is the thing here. And whether or not you recall Guzmán's turn as "First Goon" in that 1986 episode of Miami Vice, his "guy eating Cabot cheese" is not soon forgotten.