How Gas Station Chain 76 Fell in Love With #VanLife

Carmichael Lynch unveils year 2 of road-tripping spots

You've surely heard of #VanLife, the nouveau bohemian movement—consisting primarily, and obviously, of living out of a van—that's both a lifestyle and a social media phenomenon. It's been around for the better part of a decade.

Lately, 76 gas stations have climbed aboard the trend, with a wry take on it.

The brand has been running ads from Carmichael Lynch that play out as vignettes from a goofy, tongue-in-cheek travelogue involving a hapless couple—Jean and Gene, played by improv actors—who jump headlong into the #VanLife lifestyle but who perhaps aren't the best candidates for it.

It started in February 2018 with a spot that saw Gene revealing to Jean that he'd gone a little overboard with his internet shopping—and had bought a van.

76® Presents: Jean and Gene’s Awesome Adventure Road Trip - Internet Shopping

That spot kicked off "Jean and Gene's Awesome Adventure Road Trip." Year one included a a "trailer" for the series plus six ads. Now, six more spots are out—focusing on such topics as cheating on a raw food cleanse, improper use of bear spray, and a craving to be influencers (at least on Gene's part) so brands will pay them to post. 

Check out the six new spots here: 

76® Presents Jean and Gene’s Awesome Adventure Road Trip - Sound Bath
76® Presents: Jean and Gene’s Awesome Adventure Road Trip - Stars
76® Presents: Jean and Gene’s Awesome Adventure Road Trip - Two Liter
76® Presents: Jean and Gene’s Awesome Adventure Road Trip - Snuggle Pillar
76® Presents: Jean and Gene’s Awesome Adventure Road Trip - Following
76® Presents: Jean and Gene’s Awesome Adventure Road Trip - Bear Spray

Muse spoke with Carmichael Lynch executive creative director Josh Leutz about the campaign—the idea, the humor, and scripting (and improv), and the execution. 

Muse: Why were you drawn to #VanLife as a way to promote 76, and who is the target for this campaign? 
Josh Leutz: 76 is a West Coast-born brand, and #VanLife is a very West Coast thing. It's also the convergence of a lot of interesting things going on in culture right now. You've got the movement itself, of course, but also social media, clean living and all the outdoors-y gear that comes with it. 

The target is: people who drive cars. I'm being simplistic, obviously, but there's a gas station on every corner, at every highway exit in America. We have some amazing clients who realize their best play isn't to talk about rational selling points but to be the ones that people like. 

Why choose comedy for this series? Is poking a little fun at this trend a good way to approach it with this audience? 
I think fun has always been a part of the brand's DNA. Driving on the West Coast, road tripping up Highway 1, the ocean out your window—that orange ball is a part of that experience. 

This movement is huge. There's the people actually living it, of course, but then all the people who are living it vicariously through others' Instagram feeds. That's who we like to imagine Jean and Gene are—a couple who were on the outside looking in, until they decided to take the leap. They're maybe not the best van lifers, and we're having fun, but we're doing it with love.

Who are the actors, and how did you find them? 
Brent Popolizio and Bridget Moloney. Really lovely people. When we first presented the campaign to 76, we talked about how important it was to cast great improv talent. You just want it to feel real and natural and believe that these two have been together for years. 

So, beyond focusing our search on improv actors, we found them via the usual process. Looking at lots and lots of people, meeting with a handful, before narrowing it down to our two. Debating and questioning and stressing along the way. We brought different combinations of actors back in to read so we could find out who really played well together—before landing on Brent and Bridget. They were the ones we just kept talking about. The ones who really just seemed to click.

How did you go about scripting the spots, and how much was improvised by the actors? 
Because van life sits at the intersection of so many interesting things going on in culture right now and it's basically a road trip, there are so many places to go. We typically begin by talking about general starting points—obsessing about how many people are following you on social media, food cleanses, hemp fabrics—before we actually start writing scripts. 

We purposely write things a bit long to give the actors space to find the best take on it and room to play with their performances. In year one, the words, in general, are as scripted, but edited to allow for natural beats and pauses—to give 'em some room to breathe. Same in year two. Things evolve and you figure stuff out on set, of course, and Brent and Bridget are great because they're game for anything. Two-Liter is one where they really ran with it. It begins as scripted—Gene getting busted—but after that, a lot of it is them just going off the rails.

What did Maggie Carey bring to the campaign that other directors might not have? 
These are very un-commerical-like commericals. There's no sell-y bit in the middle. It really is pure storytelling. They're more like little films than television advertising commercials. So it made sense to bring in someone like Maggie, someone with an improv background, who's directed Silicon Valley, Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, to tell these stories. As this was year two, Brent and Bridget hit the ground running and quickly got into character, but credit to Maggie for bringing another level to their performances. She was awesome.

How did last year's spots perform, and did that affect how you approached this new round of work? 
Last year's campaign did really well. But still, we weren't sure we'd see these guys again. So when it was time to do new brand work for 2019, we shared a few new directions that weren't Jean and Gene. The room just quickly and naturally went back to them. We all love the characters, and everybody agreed that there's so much more story to tell here. Hopefully, we'll keep going.

Check out the first round of spots, from 2018, below.

76® Presents: Jean and Gene’s Awesome Adventure Road Trip - Trailer
76® Presents: Jean and Gene’s Awesome Adventure Road Trip - Van Life
76® Presents: Jean and Gene’s Awesome Adventure Road Trip - Tire
76® Presents: Jean and Gene’s Awesome Adventure Road Trip - Valencia
76® Presents: Jean and Gene’s Awesome Adventure Road Trip - Surfing
76® Presents: Jean and Gene’s Awesome Adventure Road Trip - Knolling

Client: 76

2019 Spots: "Bear Spray," "Following," "Snuggle Pillar," "Sound Bath," "Stars," "Two Liter"

Agency: Carmichael Lynch
Chief Creative Officer: Marty Senn
Executive Creative Director: Josh Leutz
Senior Art Director: Samantha Perry 
Senior Writer: Chris Vandersall
Account Management Team: Jennifer Corrigan, Brad Wellman, Caleb Peabody
Project Management: Lisa Brody
Content Producer: Henni Iwarsson, Jake Folska
Business Affairs: Vicki Oaches
Brand Planning: Brenna Smithson, Eden Thompson
Media: Andrew Lapham, Sophie Lippold
Social Engagement: Cavan Reagan Reichmann, Dustin Smith, Gemma Forbush, Angely Guevara

Production Company: Caviar
Director: Maggie Carey
Executive Producer: Michael Sagol
Line Producer: Michele Abbott   
Director of Photography: Kris Kachikis

Edit House: Cut + Run 
Editor: Pete Koob
Assistant Editor: Stefan Manz
Executive Producer: Deanne Mehling
Producer: Jess Manning
Color: Company 3
Colorist: Tim Masick

Online: Drive Thru
Online Artist: Derek Johnson
Executive Producer: Beth Wilson
Producer: Eric Weiher

Audio: SisterBoss
Audio Engineer: Dan Kramer
Executive Producer: Annie Sparrows

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Tim Nudd
Tim Nudd was editor in chief of the Clio Awards and editor of Muse by Clio from 2018 to 2023.

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