Personifying propane

March 1, 2007 By    

The media is full of images touting every kind of product. Beer cans sprout from billboards. Sporty new cars sparkle on television ads. White teeth gleam off magazine pages.


But how do you promote something you can’t see?

In an effort to bring more consumer attention to propane, the Propane Education & Research Council began in 2001 to work with a Washington D.C. advertising firm to produce television, radio and print advertisements that touted the safety and reliability of propane. Viewers watched as a mother confidently warms a bottle for her baby on her propane stove when a thunderstorm causes the electricity to go out. Homeowners smiled when a propane-fueled water heater provides a warm bubble bath for a young woman – who turned out to be the house sitter.

But near the end of 2002, PERC and the advertising executives knew they needed something different. Something really unique to take the campaign to the next level.


As the creative team at Porter Novelli wrestled with this dilemma, one idea separated itself from the rest: Let’s give this colorless, odorless gas a face. Let’s personify propane.

Jim Kingsley, executive creative director at Porter Novelli, said the Energy Guys concept was the “inspired” brainchild of copy writers Jim Scott Polsinelli and Rebecca Mabie.

“We instantly knew that it had something that really made it rise above the rest of the work. They were very, very funny,” Kingsley said.

“We said, you know, ‘I sort of like that guy.’ We got to a place where we liked the way they were working, Propane (as) sort of the quiet, confident guy, and Electricity (as) the guy who’s always been the one doing all this stuff, so (he thinks) ‘I don’t have to do much, they need me.'”

The Energy Guys was one of several concepts the agency pitched. While every option talked up propane and its benefits, the Energy Guys stood out for its level of engagement, likeability and entertainment, Kingsley said.

The creative concepts of a strong, confident Propane paired with a likeable, yet scattered Electricity found life with the casting of actors John Hemphill (left) and Dan Warner.
The creative concepts of a strong, confident Propane paired with a likeable, yet scattered Electricity found life with the casting of actors John Hemphill (left) and Dan Warner.

“It put a face on energy that we really felt the propane industry would benefit from,” he explained. “We didn’t really want to do another big corporate thing, an energy giant talking to us; we wanted it to be a friendly thing you can have in your house and in the comfort of your home.”

In writing the ads, Polsinelli said he was careful to keep Electricity likeable – after all, homeowners do need electricity – but to demonstrate ways in which Electricity is vulnerable when compared with Propane.

“We were careful to not damage electric’s value and find a way they can co-exist,” he said.

More than 750 actors showed up for live auditions before the Porter Novelli team, and 10 returned for final auditions with the director. Dan Warner stood out early on as their choice for Propane, but the team wanted “chemistry” with Electricity, so it didn’t want to jump to conclusions. They eventually chose John Hemphill.



“At that moment is when we realized the power of the campaign, and its ability to have long legs. Lots of parts of this (campaign) had to come from the chemistry of these two guys,” Kingsley said. “We were fortunate enough, quite honestly, to get these two guys, who were professionals in their own right and had an ability to connect with each other. They both understood the larger idea that we were trying to reach. They figured out how to do this onscreen.”

Physically, the actors needed to demonstrate that Propane was bigger and stronger than Electricity, who should appear wiry, and a bit scattered, Kingsley said.

Even though Fruit of the Loom had brought its “fruit” to life years earlier, personifying the product itself was a bit of a novel concept. And because the writing and chemistry of the characters was so entertaining, viewers with no connection to the industry are drawn in and remember the commercials.

“We worked hard to have layers of stuff that, the more you see them, the more you engage in who they are so they have a long life to them,” Kingsley said.

Making commercials
Making commercials

Costuming became another big issue. Because commercials are so short, it was imperative that the characters be identified as quickly as possible.

“Rebecca and I were talking about, do we make them super heroes? But then we wondered if they would look like dorks,” Polsinelli said. “We wanted credibility but (it had to be) simple and quick. Is electricity all yellow? Does he have a thunderbolt on his chest? Is propane all blue?”

But that’s not what the propane industry is all about, they decided. These are hard-working, reliable, regular folk who are good at what they do and have a product people can trust. The creative team wanted the commercials to reflect those qualities throughout – in the scripts, in the settings, in the casting and in the costuming. So it came down to the indisputable simplicity of jeans and white T-shirts emblazoned with their names.

“It all leads down to, how do propane and electricity co-exist to make your home more comfortable and a better place to be, with an added edge that propane does something that’s a little bit better than electricity?” Kingsley explained.

The popular faces from their TV commercial characters come to life when actors Dan Warner (left) and John Hemphill make guest appearances at trade shows.
The popular faces from their TV commercial characters come to life when actors Dan Warner (left) and John Hemphill make guest appearances at trade shows.

“It’s been very controlled to get to that point of view, and what we’re hearing is people are making that connection. People like these guys and enjoy the entertainment, so they’re not clicking off these guys and getting a sandwich, they’re watching them and we’ve made it engaging.

“If we’re not able to do that, as soon as we turn these guys into hard-sell people, that’s when we break the level of trust with the audience. We’ve always worked hard to respect the audience and make characters respectable because we don’t want anybody to buy into a clown.”

‘ELECTRICITY’

John Hemphill was closer to debating the politics of energy resources than becoming one.

In 1998, with a university education in international economics and politics solidly under his belt, Hemphill ditched a serious career for a chance at the limelight.



Nine years later, and with numerous television and film roles to his credit, he stars as Electricity in the propane industry’s award-winning Energy Guys commercials.

Hemphill, 32, admits he was a little baffled when his agent told him he would audition as Electricity. At least he understood something of it – this self-described “city boy” was even less familiar with propane.

“I knew I needed it for my grill,” he says, “but beyond that, I never thought of it as an option for home heating or cooking.”

He quickly defined the role as “the kid on his way out, or the little brother trying to get back into being with the cool guys.”

As a little brother himself (his brother is four years older), Hemphill says he remembers well the feeling of wanting to impress the older guys. It’s an analogy he thinks fits the relationship of propane and electricity – the energy sources as well as the characters.

“The thing I like is that there’s still love between the two; they need each other. They definitely get in scrapes and frustrate each other, but at the end of the day they’re still brothers,” he says.

Hemphill says he has tremendously enjoyed his role as Electricity. He credits that to the commercials’ writing and the people involved – from members of the industry to his Propane counterpart, Dan Warner.

“We get along very well,” Hemphill says of Warner. “We hit it off really well right away. I think it’s a big part of why it works. I make him laugh, he makes me laugh.

“There’s good chemistry, and that doesn’t happen all the time.”

The road to becoming a familiar face on television sets across the country was one Hemphill almost didn’t take.

A native of Tacoma, Wash., Hemphill was cast in one high school play but never seriously considered acting.

“In college, it just didn’t seem very logical to think I could make a living in acting, so I pursued a more sensible field,” says Hemphill. “When I got to the point where I was ready to start building my life, I said to myself, ‘I’ve got to do it the way I want to do it; we’ve only got one shot.'”

That shot has led to roles on such TV shows as “Desperate Housewives,” “The West Wing,” “Las Vegas” and “Commander in Chief,” among others. He also appears in the “Zodiac,” a crime thriller film released in theatres March 2, and completed shooting last fall on an independent comedy film, “The Unlikelys.”

You also might have seen him in Saturn car commercials and “acting like a man” in a series of Milwaukee’s Best Light beer commercials.

He’s even thinking of giving Broadway a try. As a single guy with not even a pet to tie him down, he figures he ought to experience that too. Between jobs and auditions, Hemphill says he enjoys oil painting and tooling around southern California in his 1965 white and red Corvair convertible.

While he’d like to land bigger, more complicated roles, Hemphill said enjoys being Electricity. He and Warner have taken their act on the road to various industry events, performing in character and getting to meet members of the industry. Hemphill says he is impressed by how “welcoming” everyone has been.

“Everybody’s got a great attitude, great energy,” he says. “It makes such a difference.”

“Every year I really look forward to filming, because it’s so fun to goof around with Dan and all the folks from PERC (Propane Education & Research Council) and Porter Novelli. We all have a good time.”

‘PROPANE’

You’ve seen him in the shower. Cooking dinner. Checking out a tankless water heater.

He’s so familiar that some propane customers think he’s a neighbor.

Dan Warner has that kind of presence. Comfortable, friendly, coolly confident. Muscular and capable, but not intimidating.

Confident enough in his manhood, in fact, to wear a kilt at his wedding last spring in a Scotland castle, even though he isn’t Scottish.

Just the kind of qualities the casting team was searching for.

When Porter Novelli, the Washington D.C. advertising agency retained by the Propane Education & Research Council, began looking for an actor to play Propane in its new Energy Guys campaign, Warner was among the first five actors considered from a pool of about 750.

The six-foot-one, 41-year-old Sacramento, Calif., native has performed in nearly 50 commercials over the course of his seven-year full-time acting career – including spots calmly making Jif peanut butter sandwiches on the sofa with a charming daughter and about 20 promoting DIRECTV.

He says he is having a lot of fun playing Propane as the “straight man” opposite John Hemphill’s nervous Electricity.

“I can’t think of a better partner than John Hemphill. He’s so wonderful to play off of. I can’t say enough good things about him. He’s fun to work with,” Warner says.

“We sort of have a sixth sense between the two of us. When we just improvise, I know when to pause; I like to let him run as much as I can because he’s just so damn funny. I let John go on and on, and I give John that look of disgust. It’s just been a whole lot of fun.”

Warner grew up on a farm, raising pigs, goats, sheep and chickens, but says he never knew anything about propane. School wasn’t his thing, unless it was wrestling season. After completing high school, he took three stabs at a junior college before dropping out altogether.

It took a personal tragedy to propel him to find his niche. When his best friend died in a car accident at age 27, he knew it was time to give acting a try.

“When my buddy passed away, I decided I wasn’t going to turn 40 and wonder ‘what if,'” Warner says.

He moved to Los Angeles, performing stand-up comedy and tending bar until he got an agent, who has helped him land roles – mostly as a security guard or police officer – on such hit television shows as “24,” “CSI,” and “Day Break.” His “meatiest” role was as a lawyer on “Cold Case,” but his favorite was as a “lair guard” in the 2002 comedy “Austin Powers: Goldmember” because it was a feature-length film.

“I do love the comedy, and that’s why the propane spots are so fun to do,” Warner says.

He fits in so well that he says the team doing the Energy Guys spots is “like a family.” He’s even been invited to stay at the homes of several industry members.

“When we shoot, everyone’s so nice;” he said. “It’s a very comfortable, very easy thing to do.”

While he likes to be in front of the camera, Warner is discovering a talent for being behind one as well. A photography hobby is starting to pay off, and he hopes to display some of his nature shots in a restaurant or publish a book. He also dreams of writing a book about auditioning for commercials.

In the meantime, he will enjoy making his father chuckle at the sight of a cardboard cut-out of his son every time he fills his barbeque tank.

“The response has been really great and everyone is just as nice as could be,” Warner says. “It’s been a thrill.”

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