Can you spot the frog in this "Only Slightly Exaggerated" image of Three Sisters mountains?
Can you spot the frog in this “Only Slightly Exaggerated” image of Three Sisters mountains?

Full disclosure: You are not going to ride a giant white rabbit if you go to the Wooden Shoe Tulip Farm in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Nor will you stand in the shadow of an enormous rock monster when you visit the Neskowin Ghost Forest, a spectacular beach on the state’s northern coast studded with ancient sitka spruce stumps. And you almost certainly will not encounter a bearded tree-man while soaking in one of Oregon’s many volcanic hot springs.

You will be able to meet these charming characters, and many more, in Travel Oregon’s “Only Slightly Exaggerated” ad campaign for tourism in the state, and in Only Slightly Exaggerated: The Art of Travel Oregon: a newly released book that gives readers an inside look at agency Wieden+Kennedy’s creative process. The animated ads, co-created by Nick Stokes and Ansel Wallenfang of W+K (in collaboration with Psyop and Sun Creature), take a fanciful approach to promoting travel. Instead of using film footage of the state’s attractions—from hot-air balloons in the Willamette Valley to the crystalline waters of Crater Lake—Stokes and Wallenfang took a chance by animating Oregon’s wonders instead, and adding a touch of the fantastical.

“We had an insight that I think is pretty true to everyone who has a phone with a camera on it,” says Stokes. “You go places like Mount Hood or Trillium Lake or the Coast, and they all look so great when you’re looking at them with your eyes. But when you take a picture, it never quite captures the magnificence.”

They realized that animation could add a dimension of wonder that is paradoxically more true-to-life than even the most high-definition photograph. “To really capture the feeling of actually being in Oregon, we needed to exaggerate things a bit,” says Wallenfang. “These were all real locations, so that was our starting place. Then we imagined characters to augment the scenes and bring a little bit more magic.”

Hence the campaign’s tagline, “Only Slightly Exaggerated,” and its cast of wild, majestic, and whimsical creatures who lead you on a journey from the state’s mountains to its deserts, and to the Pacific shore. There’s a frog who eats roast bug in a Portland restaurant; a cloud mechanic who makes it rain on the grapes that become Oregon’s fine wines; a mountain-biking caterpillar; and that white rabbit in the tulip fields, perhaps the campaign’s most iconic image.

Early concept designs of the iconic bunny.
Early concept designs of the iconic bunny.

“I love the rabbit,” says Stokes. “It was the first character, and I think it’s still my favorite. When we were first concepting this, we were being a little too responsible, and we weren’t putting enough magic into the spot. We almost wanted to just do a travel ad that was animated beautifully. And then we were like, why don’t we just make a humongous rabbit? That was when it really kicked in, we can do whatever we want here.

The campaign launched in the spring of 2018, and its success meant that Stokes and Wallenfang were tasked with creating another iteration for 2019. This one is slightly longer, and builds on the delightful imagery that distinguished the first spot. Opening with whales soaring through the clouds, the 2019 spot is peppered with callbacks to the first iteration (watch out for the postcards on the wall in the restaurant scene), while introducing new characters such as the Neskowin Rock Spirit, a benevolent giant who is awakened every morning by a seagull so that he can make the sun rise.

The animation style was itself the product of an intense search. “We looked into animation throughout the ages, and lots of different companies,” says Stokes. “We found that things like Disney or Saturday-morning cartoons were too clunky and goofy. The story we’re telling isn’t supposed to be cute or funny or slapstick. We wanted to showcase the fact that Oregon is a beautiful place, and use sophisticated animation to bring that to life.” At the last minute, the Copenhagen-based company Sun Creature put in a proposal nailing the look that Stokes and Wallenfang had been seeking.

As the campaign developed, the creative team stayed focused not on the characters for their own sake, but on how they could bring the state’s diverse geography and recreational offerings to life. Oregon has seven distinct regions with wildly divergent landscapes and attractions, from the fertile Willamette Valley to the starkly beautiful Eastern Oregon deserts. That diversity makes the state a compelling character in its own right.

Stokes and Wallenfang's early imaginings of a hot air balloon-restaurant floating over the Willamette Valley.
Stokes and Wallenfang’s early imaginings of a hot air balloon-restaurant floating over the Willamette Valley.

“We always wanted Oregon to be the hero,” says Wallenfang. “The state is unique geographically, in that we can show off this crazy diversity. But we also have this reputation as a maker culture, with these more quirky personality traits.”

That quirkiness comes through in a scene set in the Oregon Caves National Monument, where busy workers are harvesting sunstones, the official state gem. “These little creatures are the ones tasked with running nature, kind of like we run factories and run streets and drive cars and things like that,” says Stokes. “It’s kind of like Oregon’s steam room.”

Harvesting sunstone, these "cave workers" mine the fuel that keeps Oregon running.
Harvesting sunstone, these “cave workers” mine the fuel that keeps Oregon running.

A more urban quirkiness is on display in a Portland restaurant scene in the 2019 spot. A cute little girl, the same one we saw fishing off a bridge at Ramona Falls in the 2018 ad, is sharing a booth with a shaggy white monster. A waiter appears at their table to serve them, and he’s like a wacky, personified lazy Susan, with arms that rotate to display delicacies in rapid succession: salmon, steak, asparagus, donuts. The monster stuffs his face with every delicacy on offer as the girl corrects his manners, laughing with glee.

As fully realized as the characters are, you might wonder if some of them are based on real people. They aren’t, except for the sweet, floppy-eared dogs running through the dog park. Those are modeled on actual canines belonging to members of the team.

Dog designs, based on the team's own pets.
Dog designs, based on the team’s own pets.

Stokes, who grew up in Oregon, says that working on the campaign has changed the way he sees his home state. “Being on this account opened my eyes to how many cool things there are to do here that I didn’t even know about,” he says. “It’s like the thinking cap is always on now, every time I travel around Oregon. What kind of cool artifact is here? What kind of cool structure? What kind of magic could bring out these elements?”

This being Oregon, the opportunities for magic are everywhere, and they don’t end with the places mentioned here. See our interactive map to explore all seven of Oregon’s regions and W+ K’s illustrations.