The breakout PSA of 2021 takes place in a familiar setting: the ad agency. It opens on a young creative sitting alone in an open floor office. She is working on a campaign for a fictional cracker brand named Crumbz. Hunched over the glow of a laptop, she removes her glasses. Her face is visibly weary, and her fingers are trembling. But she never gets up, takes a break, or powers down her laptop to head home. Instead, she continues to plug away on the character’s designs. It’s 10 PM, according to a nearby clock, and one gets the impression that she will pull an all-nighter to get the job done.
Suddenly, fingers snap somewhere in the dark. A desk lamp flickers on. Out of the shadows comes Crumbles, the fictional brand mascot for Crumbz. Decked out in a jaunty bow tie and hat, he cheerfully greets her and starts to sing.
Kind of feels like a late-night hallucination, huh? Well, it’s not. Crumbles doesn’t sing a song that glorifies hustle culture. Instead, he’s encouraging the creative to rest and reinvest in her personal life, like calling mom on her birthday.
What if your boss doesn’t like that you’re pausing work to focus on your mental health? Crumbles says you can relay the message that a cracker says f*ck you. Because the simple truth is that this job will never stop taking from you if you let it.
This is the breakout PSA of 2021 from Nabs Canada and Cossette Canada and it’s called “This Job Will Break You.”
Time for a Burnout PSA
Debuting on World Mental Health Day October 10, 2021, “This Job Will Break You” is the brainchild of Nabs Canada and the creative team at ad agency Cossette.
Nabs is a national Canadian charity that has been operating for 38 years. The charity is unique in that it is designed specifically to support the health and well-being of all individuals in the media, marketing, and communications industry in Canada. Services provided to the industry are free services that include mental health and wellness support and resources, career coaching and support, financial aid for clients, skill development and training, and more. These services for industry professionals are delivered by professional counselors and career coaches — and are free of charge.
Nabs’ Director Mark Neves is the lead on the project. From a utilization standpoint, Neves began seeing the need for such a PSA in the people reaching out to Nabs and the overall nature of the business. People were calling the Nabs support line service struggling with burnout, anxiety and depression related to work, and work-life blending.
In his opinion, Neves has seen a few factors shifting the way we talk about mental health and overwork. A general factor, unsurprisingly, has been the impact of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
“The pandemic has increased the level of stress, anxiety, and fear of the unknown almost universally,” Neves says.
Self-reflection has factored into this uncertain period as well. “People are really figuring out if this is what they want to continue to do in their careers. It has lowered the threshold for some people for what they will tolerate moving forward.” Here Neves refers to the proactive nature of people making changes, like getting a new job with better compensation or starting their own business, as part of the search for something that gives them more meaning.
The other two factors are working from home and breaking down mental health stigma. Working from home, while a safety measure during the early days of shelter-in-place, poises significant challenges in isolating a naturally social and creative industry. As Neves points out, it has completely changed the lifestyle of the workforce with the majority of those in Canada’s industry still working from home.
Talking about mental health was once a taboo practice in the workplace. Neves notices the stigma surrounding discussing mental health issues is breaking down daily.
“Leaders are speaking up more, making others feel like they can share and be more open,” Neves says. “More people are being trained, HR and leaders, to spot the signs of mental health crisis (MHFA).”
Further, there is a growing expectation from the employee to the employer that their mental health matters.
“People expect more from their employers; whether it becomes a social signaling situation of a recruitment tool,” Neves says.
Combining all these factors was building up to the perfect storm for a PSA specific to the advertising industry. It was time to show support for the folks in the business, but to do it in a manner that the industry would appreciate.
Anyone up for a bit of dark humored flair and showtunes?
The Making of “This Job Will Break You”
Creating “This Job Will Break You” meant Neves, and Nabs, would work alongside the creative team at Canadian creative marketing and communications agency Cossette. I had the great privilege of being able to speak further with Neves about the PSA as well as Jacob Greer and Nicole Ellerton, both Creative Directors at Cossette.
Our conversation examines the impact of a PSA, animating a fictional brand mascot as cute as Crumbles, the challenges of making this film in a pandemic, and why some PSAs, specifically this one, can’t end with a smile.
How did you land on the idea of a PSA starring a singing, dancing, animated cracker paired with the message that this job will break you if you let it?
Greer and Ellerton: PSAs are always a great opportunity to do impactful work, and this one was especially interesting because it was a PSA specifically for our industry. The tricky thing about creating a PSA for people who work in advertising/comms/marketing is that we’re a tough audience. We tend to be cynical, a bit jaded, and have little patience for bullshit. So, we knew we needed to make it as truthful and insightful as possible, as well as entertaining.
Taking all this into account, we kind of just said to each other “this feels like it needs to be a musical”. It was a way to counterbalance the weight of a serious subject like mental health, with the kind of dark humor that we as creatives, and we as the industry always dig and respond to.
From there, we had to decide on what we wanted to convey (i.e. “this job can break you.”), and who would be doing the singing. We’ve all had conversations about mental health at some point, but it’s never been with a singing and dancing cracker!
Neves: The concept of a cracker is commentary on the type of products that we all work on, that in the grand scheme of things may not be life changing but we pour countless hours into campaigns and work to sell. The woman in this spot continues to ignore her own health to meet her deadlines, but all for what.
Crumbles, as a character, can be frank, have some fun with the jabs that he makes, but in the end is an ally. He is only trying to frame the issue in an entertaining and fun way to get her (and the audience’s attention)
What is it about Crumbles, the fictitious Crumbz mascot, that makes a film like this so effective?
Greer and Ellerton: Crumbles the cracker is freakin’ adorable! Tantrum, our animation partner, blew our minds when they came back with the initial designs. It’s that classic device of here’s something super cute saying some really dark stuff. He’s also meant to give perspective on the work we’re burning ourselves out for, like “I’ve hardly slept, and my stomach is in knots because of a low-sodium, low-fat cracker?!”
His song and dance is a little nod to the “song and dance” we often do to hide how we’re really feeling. And no one knows the danger of being crushed under pressure better than a cracker.
“This job will break you if you let it.” Where did this PSA title come from?
Greer and Ellerton: We wanted something that would get peoples’ attention as soon as Crumbles started singing, and we wanted to give the audience a real idea of what the song was all about in just a few words. In the end we found that “This Job Can Break You” felt really true and like a warning, but an empathetic one. It’s dark, but not so dark that it wasn’t relatable.
We also started writing the song by thinking of the chorus first. We tried to make something catchy that would pop into your head on those nights when you’re working late. We wanted it to be a reminder to take a break or find some balance, so even if you only watched the video once, you might catch yourself humming the song at 1:45 AM on a Wednesday.
Crumbles sings like Michael Bublé, dances like Fred Astaire, and brings a lot of energy into a low energy situation. How would you describe the personality of this character?
Greer and Ellerton: He’s a cheerleader and a voice of reason at the same time. And he really cares. That’s why he has put so much work into the song and dance, but he’s also not going to sugarcoat things. In a way he’s like our unfiltered internal monologue trying to set us straight.
One of the (many) things I like about this PSA is that it’s not afraid to be NSFW. Crumbles doesn’t hesitate to point out the drugs the creative is taking to push through the work week or sing out “f*ck you!” to the boss. Was there anything you didn’t want the PSA to address, or thought was too risky to mention? Or did you feel like now is the time to be honest?
Greer and Ellerton: Honestly, that was exactly right. F*ck it. If we can’t be honest with each other about how bad it can get and how hopelessly trapped we can feel, then we’d only be cheating ourselves. Softening the language, or padding the blow wouldn’t serve anyone.
It’s the honest portrayal that seems to be resonating the most with people. And, even more encouraging, the strong language that we chose in the spot is getting people to nod their heads because it’s so relatable, and it’s sparking some much-needed conversations — which is exactly what Nabs was hoping this campaign would do.
Neves: We didn’t think anything was too risky really. There may have been a moment in time where we were a little worried that this spot, and the related extensions, would be received negatively by agency leadership as a direct shot at them, which given they are our biggest financial supporters could have been problematic. What we have made clear from the very beginning however is the fact that this is an industry wide problem that has to be addressed, not just any one specific shop, and that we all have to strive to do better. It has actually been received quite positively by leadership.
Also, what we don’t want to be missed is that the woman featured has responsibility for her own mental health; it is up to her to set realistic boundaries. So, we have to make sure that management/leadership are creating an environment where employees feel comfortable doing that.
Who wrote the jingle “This Job Will Break You If You Let It?”
Greer and Ellerton: We wrote the first pass of the song ourselves because if you change the lyrics of an existing song you’re never really going to unseat the original in people’s minds, and we wanted this to stick. From there we brought in the talents of our friends at Pirate and took them through the tune (there is an acapella version of Jacob singing an older version of the song that hopefully never sees the light of day again).
Pirate turned it from an attempt at a song, into the amazing tune, arrangement, and instrumentation that became the final product. The first demo of the song we heard with Chris Tait from Pirate singing in perfect pitch and showtune style will be stuck in our heads for many years to come.
What was the animation process like for this PSA?
Greer and Ellerton: We started with some classic brand mascot references (you can see a little Mr. Peanut in there), and some more modern references of vinyl figurines that we thought matched the personality and physicality that we wanted the Crumble character to have. We also added in elements of celebrity performers like Jack Black, Bruno Mars, and the fancy footwork of Sam Rockwell.
From there Tantrum ran with it and worked closely with our director to frame how Crumbles moved through each scene, what he interacted with, etc. We cannot express enough how lucky we were to have such great partners to help elevate our original idea.
There’s a lot of face time between the actress playing the creative and Crumbles. How was this achieved in animation?
Greer and Ellerton: We used a cool little model of Crumbles on set for eyeline and to block the camera with. Our director, Edward Andrews, has a VFX background and Tantrum used the model to make sure that this was all going to come together just right.
Were there any challenges in getting this film made, especially since it was animated during the ongoing pandemic?
Greer and Ellerton: We had social distancing and all used masks on set, but did all of our reviews from home and sent a lot of very detailed PDFs to each other.
The real challenge of the job was that like most PSAs, we were working with a limited budget. Everyone who came on board was excited about the idea; it was a passion project for all of us. But given the message of the ad, we wanted to make sure that we didn’t put anyone in a situation where they were working late on a thing about not working late. So, we adjusted timelines and schedules to allow the animation to happen on a reasonable schedule.
I really loved how the film does not end on a “wrap it up in a bow” note. (Spoiler: the creative doesn’t quit because Crumbles and his song inspired her.) She knows the truth and what needs to happen next, but life isn’t a movie where you can dance out the door to a happy ending. It’s a lot more complicated than that, especially when so many creatives tie their identities to the work they do. How were you able to move from the joyful tone of the first half of the PSA to a more serious, careful ending — or as much of an ending as there can be in this moment?
Greer and Ellerton: That (landing the message at the end) was a huge part of the consideration throughout the entire process, because you’re 100% correct, we knew we couldn’t just end it with a smile. That made it seem like it was too simple of a solution, and we all know that it’s not that at all.
Neves: A big part of the dramatic effect at the end is accomplished by cutting the music and having dead air. Also, with the change in tone of Crumbles and his body language. Remember, Crumbles is designed to give the audience that perspective and be an ally.
Greer and Ellerton: We hoped people would love the song and get pulled in by the “oh yeah, that’s totally me” nature of the lyrics. And then in this emotional moment when you can see the pain on our actor’s face, we wanted people to be like “oh yeah, that’s also totally me”. At the end of the day this is a message about mental health and it’s a subject that isn’t easily resolved.
What has the response been like to this PSA?
Neves: The response has been overwhelming. I would say quite confidently this has been our biggest campaign ever, at least as far as trade publication pickup, industry response. We have had quite a few people reach out thanking us for creating the spot, with it having really resonated with them. Some even have felt compelled to donate to the organization to support the work that we do.
Greer and Ellerton: Almost immediately after launching, we started getting messages from colleagues. It was obvious that we’d struck a nerve. A lot of them expressed how much they related to the situation and how they have also felt the effects of burnout. As an industry we need to make more of an effort to take care of ourselves and look after each other, and part of that is de-stigmatizing the feeling of being overwhelmed and asking for help.
A lot of us really love what we do, but we also struggle to recognize the signs of burnout. If this helps even one person to know they’re not alone, it makes everything worth it.
This film was made for World Mental Health Day, but I think it’s important to talk about mental health beyond calendar holidays. How can Nabs offer help to those in need of mental health support?
Neves: While we are extremely proud of this spot, and of all the extensions of the campaign that we will be rolling out over the coming months, our core value to the industry is providing the mental health supports that individuals need when they are going through these crises.
Take it from Crumbles, you don’t want to crack! Visit nabs today for support and resources to protect your mental health.