His ''Germs'' ad is confusing but memorable

SUBJECT HBO’s ”Germs” ad starring George C. Scott

SYNOPSIS Scott, in menacing black uniform, addresses an army of microbes. ”To the world at large we are merely germs,” he intones, as loyal troops stand rapt. ”Looking out, I see more. I see…heroes.” The fired-up bugs jump in unison three times, depressing the power button on the remote control they’re standing on, thus turning on HBO.

BACK STORY Ad agency BBDO came up with the germ-army concept and imagined casting a George C. Scott type as the Patton-like leader. Surprisingly, when it pitched the idea to the Oscar winner, he was interested — though he did want a few adjustments. Says Hank Levine, Scott’s manager: ”Originally, they wanted him to be a general, and George is very careful not to disparage General Patton’s name in any way. He said, ‘If this is going to be Pattonesque, I’m not interested.”’ Levine says the agency retooled the character to be ”a ruler of the universe” rather than a military man; HBO was more than happy to make the changes. ”You always have certain actors in mind when casting a role,” says Eric Kessler, HBO’s senior VP of marketing. ”When Scott said yes, we were ecstatic.”

IMPACT The spot is confusing, to say the least (George C. Scott? Thousands of germs?). Which is just the kind of soft sell that HBO was looking for. ”For the first 50 to 55 seconds you don’t know what the commercial is about,” says Kessler. ”We wanted a spot that wasn’t completely obvious. You walk away and five seconds later go ‘Oh, I get it.”’