The ad is a beguilingly soft sell. A tall, beautiful Englishwoman knocks on a door to borrow some instant coffee from the dishy man next door. It looks like the beginning of a sexy dramatic encounter, but it ends after just 45 seconds.
Several months later, Episode 2 appears. The upscale lady is returning the coffee she borrowed. Electricity again surges across the doorstep. Sadly, the man can't invite her in. He's already enjoying coffee with Another Woman.
These commercials, based on similar advertisements seen in Britain, have been blanketing American channels since November and bringing "an extraordinary response," according to McCann-Erickson, the advertising agency that created them.
The novel campaign is also bringing new visibility to Sharon Maughan, the actress who appears in the spots. "Before this, I was an actress; now I'm a 'name,' " says Maughan (pronounced Maw-an).
In Britain, the 4-year-old advertising "series" has stretched to seven episodes so far, with more coming. It has turned into a veritable soap opera, as Maughan and the male "lead," Anthony Head, have progressed to the point of exchanging a brief kiss. When new installments "premiere," the coffeemaker, Nescafe, takes out newspaper ads to plug the TV ads. Comedy shows have parodied the ads, at least one drama has borrowed the "plot" and other advertisers have made imitations.
Maughan has seen her stock rise since becoming "the coffee girl," starring in "Born Yesterday" and several TV dramas such as the two-part "Inspector Morse" episode that airs on PBS' "Mystery!" tonight (at 9 on Channel 28 and 15). She plays the wife of an alleged suicide and helps uncover the real story. Ironically, at one point she has to say, "I hate coffee," and repair to a teashop.
But Maughan doesn't hate coffee. She's brewing some macadamia-mocha as she welcomes a visitor to the Venice house she's renting while she accompanies her husband--actor Trevor Eve--who is making a pilot here.
"I probably wouldn't have gotten the 'Inspector Morse' without the coffee identification," the Liverpool native says in brisk, rounded, actor-trained tones. "Before the advert came along, I couldn't get arrested. We'd just had a child (their second) and I'd been living in America for a year while Trevor was making his series 'Shadow Chasers.' I got back to England and the doors just didn't open. I suppose people thought I had put on my pinny (apron) to wash kids' clothes, and I'd return in 20 years as a character actress.
"By chance I was sitting in the reception room of a building in Soho waiting to meet a friend for lunch. At the same time in that building, McCann-Erickson was having a panic meeting over this campaign they'd been planning for two years. They couldn't find the right actress.
"Someone happened to see me sitting innocently outside and brought my name up. They invited me in to talk, I agreed to test and they hired me. I'm sure I'd never have been chosen if they'd seen me first instead of last."
It was the ads' "lightness of touch and the hint of romance" that made them a talking point in Britain, Maughan says. Sales rose 25%.
McCann-Erickson's New York office took note. "What worked for 'Upstairs, Downstairs' could work for us," says Irwin Warren, the U.S. campaign's creative director. "This campaign had a test market of 60 million people."
The coffeemaker decided to scrap the spots it had been running, a takeoff on the film "The Four Seasons." "We brought back dialogue, real repartee," Warren says. "For a long time, advertising was driven by the MTV influence, full of quick cuts. Our spots are dramas, with a beginning, middle and end."
After considering an American cast, McCann-Erickson went for the chemistry between Maughan and Head. Warren particularly liked Maughan's "unflappable elegance." British director Derek Coutts was also retained. The spots were shot in Britain, where episodes three and four will also be filmed in June to air in the fall.
The scenarios will follow the British pattern. In three, the couple attend the same dinner party; in four, they finally have dinner alone. In five, there will be a setback to their relationship.
In the U.S. version, Maughan remains English but Head uses an American accent. Maughan had wanted to use an American accent, in part to show American casting directors that she could do it. She still hopes to get work in America by exploiting her coffee connection. She starred in 20 episodes of a historical drama, "By the Sword Divided," on "Masterpiece Theatre" in 1986-87. Few remember that show now, and still fewer recall her earlier PBS miniseries, "The Flame Trees of Thika."
"I know how difficult it is to get a hook, to get noticed," she says. "Now I have the opportunity to sell myself here a bit."