VIEWPOINTS : TAKING A GIANT STEP BACKWARDS : Some Creative People Seem to Have Lost Sight of Advertising's Bottom Line--Does It Sell?

JERRY COWLE, who lives in Pacific Palisades, is a retired copywriter and advertising executive.

In the past decade, something disturbing has happened to the business, or art, of advertising. While some advertising gets better, more gets worse, much worse. It's as though an entire generation of practitioners feels it necessary to reinvent the wheel. In doing so, many have lost sight of what good advertising ought to do: Make the consumer an offer he or she can't refuse. Much of today's doesn't. Instead, it puts a premium on name recognition, without giving the consumer a reason to buy.

Perhaps the current spate of television spots and print ads mirrors today's society--frantic, acquisitive, youth-oriented, me-first. Witness the flood of soft drink, chewing gum and beer commercials with jerky cuts to and from young people (always young people) throwing, batting or spiking balls, racing into the surf with or without boards, roller skating backwards, throwing high fives and "We're No. 1s" all over the place, partying frantically. Some of these products are selling well, but with more effective commercials, they'd probably do even better.

I defy anyone who has never heard of Georges Marciano clothing to watch its commercials and interpret what those spots, which quickly cut from one unrelated scene to another, are trying to sell. They look more like black-and-white 30-second histories of the world.

Even weirder are Calvin Klein's "Obsession" commercials, featuring spaced-out types who look ready to jump out of their respective skins. Warning: Don't watch on a full stomach.

Even Hal Riney & Partners of San Francisco, regarded by many to be the hottest creative agency in the country, has spawned a few clunkers. For Dreyer's Grand Ice Cream, it showed the disgusting sight of people eating directly from a family-sized carton. One hopes they don't have a communicable disease.

For the same client, the agency had the incredibly bad taste to use one-time Nixon aide John Ehrlichman to illustrate "incredibly" good-tasting light ice cream. For Sterling automobiles, Riney showed various experts who were highly successful in picking winners, one being a stockbroker. We finally discover what the commercial was all about, in the last few seconds, when the broker gave us another hot tip--buy a Sterling.

Next we come to banks. We're all affected by banks every day, so it's hard to understand why they feel they have to be funny or whimsical in their advertising. The recent First Interstate Bank television and magazine ads are, in my opinion, rather arch and cutesy. Two are based on "Goldilocks and the Three Bears" and the "Three Little Pigs." (At least they won't have to pay for the rights!) Those ads bring to mind something Einstein said back in the 1960s. (Not Albert the scientist, but Cliff, president of Dailey & Associates Agency.) Cliff was then free-lancing for United California Bank. He stood up in a meeting and said, solemnly of course, "Money isn't funny."

Recently, American Savings & Loan Assn. used a magician in its television commercial. He made things appear and disappear. Given the present state of the S&L; industry, he's the last person I want handling my money.

Some respected advertising people drape garlands around advertising that says nothing, merely because it uses an original technique, or one borrowed from films. One example: the Claymation technique in the Raisin Advisory Board commercials. Can anyone tell me what those dancing raisins are communicating other than "I heard it on the grapevine?"

Regarding the penchant of present-day ad people to entertain, often at the expense of selling, consider what Adlai Stevenson said in 1960, in introducing John F. Kennedy: "Do you remember that, in classical times when Cicero had finished speaking, the people said, 'How well he spoke'--but when Demosthenes had finished speaking, the people said, 'Let us march'?"

On the theory that he who throws brickbats ought to lighten up and throw an occasional bouquet, the same Hal Riney has created some of the blockbuster commercials of the past several years, the kind that entertain and sell. Some examples: Frank and Ed, the two rustics for Bartles & James Wine Coolers. One stays silent in the background, the other's home-spun pitch invariably ends with "Thank you for your support." Also, they have had some elegant and heart-warming slices of life for Gallo Wines, including one showing a wedding party, and a long-running series of Americana spots for Henry Weinhard's Special Reserve beer. (Recently, Hal Riney resigned from the E & J Gallo Winery business, including Bartles & James, throwing $78 million in advertising billings up for grabs.)

Three ad campaigns that have been outstanding for years are the "Do You Know Me?" campaign for American Express Cards, Kodak's "Memories" and Hallmark Cards' "When you care enough to send the very best." Now the Acura Legend car joins these ranks. One Acura newspaper ad showed a $21,000 Legend side-by-side with a $62,500 Mercedes 560 SEC. The headline: "The Acura Legend Would Compare Equally to a Mercedes 560 SEC If Only It Wasn't Missing a $40,000 Part." The "part" turned out to be the Mercedes emblem. Convincing copy.

Power of Candor

In advertising's earlier days, there were men of stature who, by trial and error, established sound precepts of how to communicate product benefits. "Look for the inherent drama within the product itself" was the late Leo Burnett's credo. Whether it was Kellogg's, Pillsbury, Green Giant or United Airlines, Burnett could sift through the chaff and come up with kernels of benefit that enabled his client to stand out from the competition.

The late Rosser Reeves, the brilliant boss at Ted Bates Advertising, developed the Unique Selling Proposition, which was in the same ballpark. USP requires that each ad must make a proposition to the consumer that the competition either cannot or does not offer, and be so strong that it can pull over new customers to the product.

The late Bill Bernbach of Doyle Dane Bernbach (now DDB Needham Worldwide Inc.) believed in the disarming power of candor, presented dramatically to cut through consumer indifference. Examples: the "Lemon" ad for Volkswagen, wherein a minuscule defect disqualified a car. He dared to use the word lemon, a longtime no-no in Detroit. Another was his "If you can find a better bourbon, buy it!" for Ancient Age bourbon. If the latter sounds familiar, Lee Iacocca's ad agency put similar words in his mouth about 30 years later. But if miniskirts can come back, why not advertising headlines?

What's the bottom line? The good ad makers keep producing good work, and the bad ones keep putting out clunkers. That's the way it has always been, with advertising ranging from the good to the bad to the ugly. The only consolation is that, if advertising doesn't move goods, level heads eventually will throw it out and start over.

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