A comedic misunderstanding lands the Norwegian agency Silver.
The origins of the Berlitz Language School's "German Coastguard" TV spot lay in one of those old jokes that gets told repeatedly, with different variations around the globe. According to Norway's BTS United's creative director, Thorbjørn Naug: "Me and my copywriter, Pål Sparre-Enger, had a nice lunch at the beach in Cannes, with some people from the production company Motion Blur, of Oslo. After a few bottles of wine, people seem to like to tell stories. So I told the story about the English ship in distress. And suddenly we realized we had a very funny idea for a commercial."
But it took a while for things to happen. "We all liked the idea so much that we decided to work together to realize the idea," says Naug. "We later sold the idea to Berlitz, though it took some time before we finally shot the film with Motion Blur and the directors Nic and Sune." It took even longer for Naug and Sparre-Enger to find the right actor for the role.
The plot is as follows: A young recruit is left in charge of the controls of a coastguard station by an older colleague. Once he's on his own, a distress call comes in from an English ship and he discovers the subtleties of communicating with the English-speaking communications officer. "Mayday! Mayday! We are sinking!" comes the cry for help over the radio. The answer given by the young coastguard proves the need for Berlitz's language training. "Vot are you sinking about?" The message: Improve your English.
The spot, which had a budget of around $100,000, began running last year on Norway's TV2, then it took on a life of its own when it landed on YouTube. But after just a short period of time the client took it off the air. "The client had an insecure feeling about how the German market would respond," explains Naug. "Later, the film went viral, and today, probably most of the people in Germany have seen it without any negative response at all, as far as I know."
The spot also just happened to win a Gold Lion at Cannes last year and a Silver in this year's One Show. And, if any further evidence of its popularity were needed, says Naug, then just Google the words, "German Coastguard," and more than one million links come up.