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A Sizzling New Sell : More and More, Corporations Are Depending on an Advertising Style Born in Los Angeles to Deliver Their Pitch for Your Shopping Dollar

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David DeVoss is a Los Angeles Times Magazine staff writer

In the summer of ‘84, a television audience of 2 billion people sat down to watch the Olympic Games-- and Los Angeles. Instead of the predictable red, white and blue, the city appeared draped in magenta, vermilion, yellow and aqua. The Games also took place amid ephemeral struc- tures made of cardboard, fabric and fancy. Balloons, murals and wafting pennants lined the boulevards. It was a pivotal 16 days for the city; the world discovered that Los Angeles had replaced its out- moded reputation for ennui and sprawl with culture, cuisine and a sense of humor. And what it lacked in grace, it clearly made up for in style. In the following pages, we offer some of the high points--and the high-profile practitioners--of that style, including the likes of architect Jon Jerde and color consultant Deborah Sussman, who together gave the city its look for the Olympics and still shape its skyline, and Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken, taste-making chefs with the courage to improvise. We’ve also united rising stars in entertainment with their counterparts in fashion for a sneak preview of L.A. designers’ fall collections. Their contributions propel Los Angeles forward, making it, in Jerde’s words, “the place where things are going to happen . . . the city of the future.”

Through the lens of a Super Panavid camera it looks like a normal campsite. An American family is seated around a tree stump. Their van is parked in the distance. A few timid forest creatures lurk in the foliage. The only incongruity in this bucolic setting is a television monitor that sits atop the stump like an electronic totem.

According to the script, the family is about to view a home movie Dad has shot with his new cassette camera. The video shows the children playing with an adorable little rabbit. The images are so colorful and lifelike that even the forest animals watch.

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“Bring the bunny up to center frame,” yells director Robert Abel, 49, whose commercials have won 23 Clio awards. “We’ve got to stop it from jumping around,” he says, squinting through his director’s loupe. “Can’t you stick him down with Krazy Glue?” he asks a flustered animal trainer.

“Forgive me,” she says, wincing. “This is my first time with rabbits.”

“Well,” says Abel, “move him down the branch next to the owl.”

“If I put bunny there, he’ll end up being the owl’s lunch,” she stammers, caught between pleasing her superior and sacrificing a friend.

Abel ponders her dilemma, then glances at his watch. After spending five hours on a KTLA sound stage in Hollywood setting up the three-second scene, he allows himself the satisfaction of a sigh.

“OK, let’s focus on the deer. Does it have a good side?” he asks with a smile. “The animals are the real stars in this commercial.”

But Abel’s actual “star” is the Panasonic equipment that’s to be advertised, and in this role it receives more attention than any Hollywood ingenue. In a society surfeited with visual stimuli, television commercials must excite and astound. So Abel will take 19 days and $700,000 to produce three 30-second spots for Ted Bates Advertising. The increased complexity of this most competitive of the commercial arts is attracting a growing number of advertisers to Los Angeles, advertisers whose agencies can draw on the resources of the entertainment business and surrounding high-tech industries.

Twenty years ago, commercials consisted mostly of “bite ‘n’ smile” and “slice of life” sketches in which people munched pizza or compared dirty shirt collars. Today, commercials are often more entertaining than the programs they punctuate. And they certainly are more expensive. More than $21 billion will be spent on TV advertising this year. The average 30-second commercial costs about $250,000, or $8,300 per second, to produce. A situation comedy, by comparison, can be put together for $275 per second.

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Corporations with the million-dollar budgets necessary to buy television time have traditionally used New York agencies to mastermind their advertising. Today, though California still ranks second to New York in advertising sold, its agencies are growing twice as fast as those in Manhattan, and the billings of the state’s 15 hottest agencies jumped nearly 35% last year, according to Adweek magazine. The increased demand for the region’s sophisticated brand of advertising has attracted hundreds of talented writers, designers, photographers and artists. Their collective creative output is described by Adweek as “The L.A. Look--a confluence of elements with boundaries as elusive as the city that fashioned it.”

Los Angeles advertising did not begin to receive national recognition until 1957, when an upstart agency named Carson / Roberts launched its own campaign to bring the Brooklyn Dodgers to Los Angeles. Every time the Dodgers were rained out, an ad would appear in New York newspapers reminding Walter O’Malley that “we had baseball weather in Los Angeles yesterday.” Madison Avenue dismissed the campaign as a bush-league ploy. What else could you expect from an agency with offices clustered around a patio full of orange trees and with secretaries who answered the telephone with a cheery “Have a happy day”? But the campaign was influential; on Oct. 8, 1957, O’Malley announced the team’s move West.

Similar unconventional tactics worked for other companies. When Burton Baskin and Irvine Robbins asked Carson / Roberts in 1953 to place $500 worth of newspaper ads for their ice cream shops, the staff devised a marketing strategy based on “31 flavors” and the slogan, “Count the flavors where flavor counts.” In 1954, the firm advised Ruth Handler, founder of what was then a small toy company, Mattel, to gamble a sum equal to her net worth on sponsoring a new show called “The Mickey Mouse Club.” When Universal Studios began offering tours in 1967, agency vice chairman and creative director Jack Roberts devised an ad urging parents to “bring your monsters to see our monsters.”

“East Coast agencies and the companies they represented were conservative, since both were under third-generation management,” remembers Roberts, 66, whose agency had annual billings of $25 million when it was purchased by Ogilvy & Mather in 1971. “Our clients were pioneers in their field--real entrepreneurs who realized creativity involved risk.”

Carson / Roberts’ reputation was linked to the dynamism of Southern California in the ‘60s, and that may be why its influence within the advertising industry was limited. Social revolution mirrored in its commercials had yet to occur outside the state. Working in a Los Angeles agency continued to be like acting off-Broadway: A copywriter or art director could produce excellent work, yet remain virtually anonymous in the business.

Los Angeles finally achieved creative parity with New York during the third quarter of the 1984 Super Bowl, when an audience estimated at 115 million watched a commercial for Apple Computer. The Chiat / Day commercial lasted only 60 seconds, but it had the effect of an atomic bomb exploding on Madison Avenue. There was no traditional sales pitch. The client’s name didn’t appear until the final second. It was an emotional event, a triumph of visual image over intellectual argument.

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“It was a critical moment for Apple,” recalls Steve Hayden, Chiat / Day’s 38-year-old creative director. “In late 1983, the business press decided IBM would be the eventual winner in the battle to control the personal computer market. Apple had a new, unique computer in the Macintosh. Our job was to argue for the democratization of technology. We needed to make people realize that if you centralize technology it can be evil, but if everybody has it there’s nothing to be afraid of.”

Chiat / Day’s solution was an Orwellian nightmare titled “1984.” Directed by Ridley Scott, whose previous credits included the science-fiction films “Alien” and “Blade Runner,” the commercial shows a woman trapped in a society of bald automatons who parrot the propaganda that drones incessantly from television screens. She is desperately trying to elude police who resemble minions of Darth Vader. Her survival depends on liberating the dulled minds around her, which she accomplishes by flinging a sledgehammer through an enormous propaganda screen. “On Jan. 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh,” the ad concluded. “And you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like ‘1984.’ ”

The Macintosh went on the market at noon the following Tuesday. By the end of the day, $6 million worth of new computers had been sold, and deposits amounting to $1 million had been accepted against future deliveries. Apple had hoped to sell 50,000 units during the first three months. By the end of the first 100 days, more than 72,000 had been sold.

The ad transformed Chiat / Day into the hottest agency in Los Angeles. Within months, its billings had increased by 100%. One of its new clients was Nike, an Oregon athletic equipment company that wanted to illustrate its participation in the Olympics without simply showing an athlete holding his shoes. Chiat / Day’s response was a $3-million billboard campaign that underscored the exuberance of competition by focusing on athletes themselves. A soaring Carl Lewis evoked the exhilaration of long jumping. One pair of billboards showed Raider quarterback Jim Plunkett throwing a pass to a leaping receiver on the opposite side of La Cienega Boulevard. The Nike logo was unobtrusively placed in the corner, a subtle approach that prompted people to search for the brand name.

Graphic design is crucial to advertising, and a new style native to Southern California has clearly evolved. The minimalism of the ‘60s, which used sans-serif type and abundant white space to achieve a flat, homogenized simplicity, has given way to a more textured look. Aided by advances in computer software, graphic designers and illustrators can combine dissimilar images and techniques to give spatial characteristics to two-dimensional surfaces. Perhaps the best example of this “layered” approach to graphics is the Olympic poster by April Greiman that--by joining colors, photography and brush strokes--creates the illusion of a barefoot runner stepping down from the sky.

Greiman lives in a loft in the old Pabst brewery in Lincoln Heights, with windows opening to the Latino and Oriental neighborhoods bordering downtown. The view affords a sense of space, warmth and color, which has made the decrepit brewery a favorite home for young designers.

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Greiman explains the differences in East and West Coast design this way: “L.A. is a horizontally structured water culture heavily influenced by the Orient, while New York is a mountain culture genetically linked to Europe. Los Angeles can’t compete with New York intellectually, but the opportunity for graphic expression is greater here because the centers of technology are open to inspiration from Japan and Hollywood.”

The most profound influence on Los Angeles graphics, however, has been the music industry, which in the 1960s and ‘70s proved--with album covers and billboards--that accepted rules of design could be broken. At Butler Inc., a design firm housed in a former dog-and-cat hospital in Hollywood, the unstructured atmosphere bespeaks rock ‘n’ roll. President Craig Butler and his associate, John Kosh, designed thousands of album covers in the ‘70s. “A person who can be outrageous within the rigid confines of a 12-inch square has to be a disciplined communicator,” says Kosh. “First, I chromed all the letters; then I made them electric. After that there was lipstick and toothpaste script. Now we use computer graphics. The torn-paper, pink-script ‘Melrose look’ is 1970s graphics borrowed and improved.”

That retail outlets are now demanding designs similar to those developed for heavy-metal bands indicates, Butler says, that mainstream businesses realize the sales potential of creative graphics. “There’s nothing wrong with demographics and market research in advertising,” he says, “but I’m glad the atmosphere in Los Angeles allows statistics to be set aside occasionally for the sake of creative fun.”

“Advertising is a reflection of the city where it’s produced,” says Adrienne Lowe, creative director for Ramey Communications in Los Angeles. “New York aspires to the sly sophistication of a Woody Allen movie. Chicago created the Pillsbury Doughboy and the Jolly Green Giant. Los Angeles is considered innovative, but it has to be, since many clients are imports or companies with small ad budgets. If agencies stop being daring, their clients may never be noticed.”

Both coasts, of course, have their share of creativity and wit--the emergence of a Los Angeles look in advertising doesn’t diminish the stature of Madison Avenue. Chiat / Day’s bicoastal chairman and chief executive officer, Jay Chiat, believes the style of an agency’s advertising is influenced more by its clients’ personalities and the audiences they want to reach than by local environmental factors. “In the end, advertising is all demographics,” he says.

The Southern California style in advertising could not have come about without the region’s burgeoning population and industrial base. The same factors are leading advertisers to realize that they can ill afford to ignore the dynamic market from which this new advertising has sprung. The state has the eighth-strongest economy when counted among the nations of the world, and more than $50 billion in Pacific Rim trade annually passes through its ports. About 20% of America’s fastest-growing corporations have headquarters here. Familiarity with the needs and self-image of the state’s consumers is essential, as Chevrolet discovered two years ago when it woke up to the fact that its commercials, created in Detroit, were misfiring in Southern California.

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Detroit auto makers had always regarded weekend professional football games as their best forum for advertising. The viewers, staying close to the TV to escape the cold weather, tend to be family men who prefer large cars with expensive options. The logic of pursuing that market was inescapable, yet it didn’t work here. Chevrolet accounted for 15% of national auto sales, but could never rise above 9% of the California market. True, Californians bought plenty of Corvettes, but they tended to ignore the large family sedans whose options created the potential for large profit margins. If the Cavalier is the top-selling car in the nation, Chevrolet executives asked, why does it rank 17th in California?

In October, 1984, Chevrolet broke a 75-year tradition and shifted its $15-million California advertising budget from Detroit to Vic Olesen & Partners in Los Angeles. Olesen found Detroit’s problem with weekend advertising easy to explain. The games that fill snowy Sunday afternoons in Ohio begin at 10 a.m. on the West Coast, when the sun is shining and the beach beckons.

But the difference in climate did not fully account for Chevrolet’s low standing with California’s consumers. The agency concluded that Chevy’s main problem was its image. “Chevy was regarded as a conservative Midwestern car,” says Olesen marketing strategist Bill Donaldson. “It had a family / economy image with people who wanted sporty / economy cars.”

To change that image, Olesen scrapped the Cavalier commercials that showed Daddy being greeted after work by his son and the family dog and substituted a digitally recorded TV ad in which lightning, speed, red lights and kaleidoscopic hubcaps flickered in synapse. “The goal was to communicate subliminally a feeling of excitement,” Donaldson says. The commercials first appeared in March, 1985. By the end of April, Cavalier ranked 11th in California auto sales, and its name recognition had jumped from 47% to 90%.

The agency also concluded that the United States was not as homogeneous as Chevrolet had thought. “The California consumer is completely different,” says Irwin Davis, the Olesen group’s media and marketing planner. “Californians don’t live in the cold, but we tend to travel to it.

We buy 50% more skis (than) and half as many ice skates as the rest of the country.” Those findings indicated that Chevrolet had also miscalculated in promoting its four-wheel-drive Blazer. Detroit was concentrating on selling it as an off-road vehicle for the snowbound Northeast and ignoring the much larger California market for sporty weekend vehicles. Its print ads were altered accordingly.

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Advertisers aiming at Southern California are also finding that they must take into account its cultural diversity. “Advertising traditionally relies on jokes, slang and double-entendres, but if you use a Malibu surfing expression you’ll totally confuse the Cambodians in Long Beach,” says S Colombatto, 34, group creative director for Davis, Johnson, Mogul & Colombatto, the largest retail-oriented agency on the West Coast. “Our minorities are not assimilated like the ethnic groups on the East Coast. Writing copy that can be instantly understood by a Beverly Hills matron, her Hispanic housekeeper and the Vietnamese grocer down the street is not easy.”

Instantaneous communication is essential in TV advertising because commercials are becoming shorter. The typical TV spot of the past lasted one minute. It now averages 30 seconds and is expected to drop to 15 seconds within the next 10 years. The brand name or logo must come as part of an entertainment package.

This sense of immediate awe is now being accomplished with computer graphics, which can bring inanimate objects to life. In advertising, Robert Abel is the recognized leader in this 10-year-old technique. Software developed by his 130-man production company, Abel Image Reseach, allows a television screen to be broken into 1,048,000 electronic dots, or pixels, which are individually programmed. In 1985, before he made a commercial for the Canned Food Council, Abel videotaped a human model, then translated her movements into a computer. The result was “Brilliance,” a 60-second peek into the future with a sensuous robot moving with feline grace in a space-age kitchen stocked with canned food.

“Los Angeles had the pioneering, breakthrough attitude necessary for quality advertising,” says Allen DeBevoise, the 30-year-old president of Abel Image Research. “When discoveries in optics, fluid dynamics and aerospace are combined with Hollywood craftsmanship, we learn to create a new world.”

The pressure to create even more-entertaining advertisements will grow. Cable programming now goes into 45% of America’s homes, and one in every three households with TV has a VCR. Viewers can either ignore or tape network programming. The ability to fast-forward through commercials at the push of a remote button means that commercial messages must come in even more inventive, dramatic packages.

No better example of these attention-grabbing “advertising events” can be found than those that began in the mid-’70s when Jack in the Box launched the “burger wars” by attacking McDonald’s. Burger King and Wendy’s soon joined the fray, which continues to sizzle. Such confrontational advertising can be devastating, as Coca-Cola found out last year when, blind-sided by the “Pepsi Challenge,” it responded with a new formula for Coke, a marketing blunder of legendary proportions. The cola and burger wars were waged by agencies in New York and Chicago, but two intrastate rivals, Chiat / Day and San Francisco’s Hal Riney & Partners, are gearing up for a similar struggle. The prize is primacy in the expanding wine-cooler market.

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Riney drew first blood last year with its folksy campaign for Bartles & Jaymes wine cooler, made by Gallo. It consisted of 30 commercials featuring two American Gothic farmers: Ed, who sits mute on a porch, and Frank, who rambles on about the product’s rustic origins.

This month, Chiat / Day will counter with a campaign of eight commercials that evoke Southern California’s surfing mythology on behalf of California Cooler. The spots are music videos in which surfers in baggies and Annette Funicello clones boogie on the beach to the tune of “Louie, Louie.”

But the L.A. style of advertising can no longer be defined solely by such allusions to Beach Boy idylls. Says Chiat / Day president Lee Clow, a 41-year-old surfer who next year will move the agency to new headquarters one block from Venice Beach: “East Coast advertisers are looking to California for fresh, creative alternatives to match their aggressive, entrepreneurial spirit. This is the beginning of a future where California sets the standard by which advertising is measured.”

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