Marketing Magazine

September 16, 2002

A campaign with class

How the English Montreal School Board's "bonhomme" cartoon character help boost adult course enrollment

By Warren Perley

When it comes to academe, the adage "teacher knows best" has been a popular truism for many generations. These days, educators at the English Montreal School Board (EMSB) are also showing that they're pretty savvy when it comes to breaking new ground in educational advertising and marketing.

Ponctuation Grafix received a simple mandate from the EMSB: Do something different to bring attention to its Adult Education and Vocational Services programs.

We recommended that the graphics be zippy and the text fun in order to grab the attention of would-be students. Once we had their attention, our priority was to inform them of new career options in vocational trades in a clear, concise manner.

Studies have shown that many pupils have negative attitudes about going to school. Juxtapose that fact with a recent McGill University study that shows people pay more attention to entertaining advertisements.

Rosario Ortona, the director of Adult & Vocational Services at the EMSB, recognized the advantages of using humour to sell adults on the merits of returning to school. For example, the quote we used on the front cover of the pamphlet for Professional and Contemporary Cooking was:"You can't think rationally on an empty stomach, and a whole lot of people can't do it on a full one either. –British Lord Reith (1889-1971)."

The graphics, created in-house by our illustrators, were equally snappy. We drew a genderless cartoon character, which we dubbed our "bonhomme," and inserted this character into a different scene on the cover of each of the pamphlets. Much of the press run of about 240,000 was quickly snapped up by would-be students.


The “bonnehomme” is stopped in its tracks by a gang of rook, bishop and knight.
The “bonhomme” is stopped in its tracks by a gang of rook, bishop and knight.

The following year, 2001, the EMSB presented us with a new challenge: to create a broadcast ad that would bring the same sense of excitement to the television screen. We knew we had a proven crowd-pleaser in the form of our "bonhomme" cartoon character, so why not take him from print to animated form on television?

Our 30-second animation was a winner. It ran for two weeks in the summer of 2001 on local television stations, while on the radio side we created a humorous 30-second ad.

The radio ad keyed in on a supermarket errand boy named Bob who is continually being paged over the PA system to clean up another in-store mess such as blocked toilets and broken jars. The voice-over intones: "Are you in a dead-end job?" and goes on to list the new career options available through the EMSB.

The EMSB reported that the number of inquiries about its vocational courses shot up 1,000% during the two-week period when the ads ran.

But success brings its own kind of pressure. What kind of new and stimulating creative could we some up with in 2002 for the animated television ad?

Art director Rodney Hall and graphic designers Karen Boor and Brian McCullough felt ambitious. Why not transform a chessboard motif into the mirror image of a modern city skyline with our "bonhomme" darting and dodging menacing chess pieces intent on blocking our protagonist's career advancement?

In our version, chess had almost become a contact sport with our "bonhomme" zigzagging away from ominous-looking chess pieces towards a big-city skyline. About six seconds into the animation, our "bonhomme" is stopped in its tracks by a gang of rook, bishop and knight. A voice-over asks: "Are your career moves being blocked?"

Our desperate hero instinctively jumps onto a square, showing the EMSB logo, whose radiant light thrusts our character skywards beyond the reach of the menacing chessmen and towards the city skyline where we see a list of the EMSB vocational courses.

The voice-over concludes with the motto: "Choose Your Program. Choose Your Life!"

WARREN PERLEY, a former career journalist, is president of Ponctuation Grafix, a Montreal-based graphic design studio.