Ant Wars

After approval of my first illustration for the new Amdro Fire Ant killer, some last-minute marketing data came in from a focus group. Amdro decided to change the ant into a dead one. Instead of trying to compete with the other brands for the meanest looking fire ant on the shelf, they went back to their original branding image–a dead ant– and simply made it a better dead ant illustration.

Scroll down to see more of the story.

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First fire ant art


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Amdro Fire Ant label #1

Are ants preparing for a war against humans?

No. Not exactly. They are just doing what any other species would do: seek out new terri­tory, exploit resources, repro­duce, and defend their family.

But we have got to stop them, and it’s all out chemical warfare! There are no arms limita­tion treaties and no Homeland Security Office–each citizen is on their own.

Imported fire ants did not intend to invade the US–they were acciden­tally intro­duced in 1918 in a cargo ship from South America–to them, it looked as good as any other place to make a living, maybe better. Who can blame them. Still, it was illegal entry, and since then, they have been multi­plying and steadily extending their range westward, just like we would do. Stopping them has become a multi-billion dollar defense industry.

Then there is the sort of a mini-war going on in the ant-killer industry to gain market share in this war.

This war is being fought in the hearts and minds of consumers and the standard-bearer is the packaging label. And on the home front, as the battle for market share in weapons of insect destruc­tion has escalated, the packaging has evolved in kind. It is easy to see where the art is going: pretty soon the ants would no longer be recog­niz­able as fire ants, or even like any kind of ant at all. They were looking like insects alright, but in the arms race to depict the enemy in as threat­ening a pose as possible, they looked more like the arthropod that ate Chicago in an old Japanese Sci-fi movie.

When branding designer Ron Rifkin entered this fray, he decided to outflank the compe­ti­tion. Most of the competition’s ants looked pretty scary, but were not very realistic. He wanted a realistic ant, but he also wanted to make it mean.

When Ron called me to do the new label illus­tra­tion, he wanted to change the course of evolu­tion a bit. Alex had already brought on board entomol­o­gist and insect photog­ra­pher Alex Wild as a reality consul­tant. As great as Alex’s ant photographs are, this was clearly a job for illus­tra­tion.

They wanted two things: a super-real ant that was accurate and recog­niz­able as genus Solenopsis, the fire ant. They also wanted it threat­ening. So we exagger­ated some of the anatomy, like the mandibles. On this label, humans and ants would face each other, ready for the final battle.

When the terri­fied consumer who had encoun­tered the advance guard of the horde of invading fire ants from the east in their lawn, and raced to Home Depot to choose their weapon, and were standing, adren­a­line pumping through their veins, in front of the display–what should they be thinking?

Kill. Kill them. Kill them all!”

And if they had paid atten­tion in high school biology and were thinking strate­gi­cally, “kill the queen.” It does no good to kill the ants you can see, no matter how high the body count.

That’s what my illus­tra­tion had to do. Inspire in the viewer a desire to kill her queen. (Yes, the ants are all girls.)

With this in mind, I went down to Home Depot myself and took some photos of the shelves with all the competing brands. I did notice that some of the other brands were almost sold out, while our brand was still there, packing the shelves. An employee even asked me if she could help while I stood there pondering. I told her I had things under control.

During the illus­tra­tion process, which is one of going back and forth, of sketching and painting new versions, the ant went from rough sketch, to cute ant, to smiling ant, to wickedly smiling ant, to looking like a Harvester ant. Realizing that harvester ants and fire ants were in the same subfamily, it didn’t take long to correct that error.

In the end, my client, his client, and the entomol­o­gist all agreed that the result looked like a fire ant, and that one should get up and do something about it. Our national security is at stake. 😉

But Wait! Hold the press.

Word came in after I had marked this project completed that the client decided to do one more focus group based on a request from a CEO. This time the ant would not be threatening–it would already be uh.…dead.

I did a colored comp of a dead ant for the market research team to test. There had been an overall increase in positive interest in the product based on the new design vs. the old one, but now the dead ant won over the live one by almost 2:1.

I’m not sure what this says about human buying psychology. Maybe the satis­fac­tion of seeing the enemy already defeated trumps the adren­a­line rush of seeing him (or her, in this case) attacking.

Here is the final label.

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Final Amdro Fire ant label with dead ant

When asked how his experi­ence was working with Paul, the art director said, “Great. He’s very respon­sive and enthu­si­astic.”

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The new Amdro design on the shelf at Home Depot

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New and old (upper) Amdro bottles on shelf

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