Where's The Pitch?

Paul Brownfield is a Times staff writer

Jerry Seinfeld is onstage in London, and he's bombing.

". . . so I got off the elevator, cut in line and said, 'What is this, the seventh inning stretch?' "

Silence. The trouble isn't his jokes, Seinfeld thinks, it's the language barrier. Why not hang out a bit, spend some time with the British people, get to know the local expressions?

Adventures ensue. Riding in a cab, Jerry thinks he sees the Queen Mother. He herds sheep. He plays cricket. He eats too much sausage. But by the end of it all, he's speaking like an honest-to-God Brit, and back onstage his jokes kill, even though he's saying them in a dialect he himself doesn't understand.

Is it "Seinfeld" the show or "Seinfeld" the ad? Because the story only takes 30 seconds to tell, the answer is Seinfeld the ad. But who can tell anymore, the way commercials look like music videos, dramatic series, sitcoms, feature film previews--look, in other words, like anything but commercials.

In fact, while "Seinfeld" the series is set to leave the air May 14, "Seinfeld" the commercials will continue at least into the summer, as the comedian shoots new spots for American Express.

Cloaking a hard-sell message in the soothing image of a celebrity is a tactic as old as TV advertising itself, but the making of the Seinfeld ads reveals how much the line is blurring between the TV commercial and the TV program. In the age of the cable boom and the multi-channel viewer, commercials strive to be part of a seamless mix of seductive and slick images--an attempt, in effect, to eliminate the traditionally jarring experience of the commercial break.

"I often say that it's a mistake to think you're just competing with other commercials," says David Apicella, creative director at Ogilvy & Mather, the New York ad agency that does the Seinfeld American Express ads. "I think you're competing with everything else on television."

To that end, advertising agencies are hauling out every gimmick they can think of--recurring lizards playing out-of-work actors (Budweiser), Claymation baseball heroes (Babe Ruth and Reggie Jackson in a Lipton Brisk ad) and sometimes, as in the case of Seinfeld, characters lifted fully formed from their popular sitcoms--to condition viewers to see commercials as part of the programming mosaic.

Not only does Seinfeld have final script approval of the American Express commercials, but he conducts story meetings and pitch sessions, Apicella says.

"We do it sort of the way his show is done," Apicella says. "We pitch concepts to him and then we settle on a half dozen and we write those with him."

On the one hand, Seinfeld's involvement is testimony to his interest in the advertising field (in a recent Vanity Fair profile, he even floated the idea of opening his own boutique agency). But it also shows how much ad-making has come to resemble the process of making network TV.

A September 1997 Los Angeles Times poll underscored the mandate for advertisers: In the survey, four in 10 men said they always or frequently change channels when a commercial comes on; 28% of women said they did too.

And so, commercials have adopted the look and feel of the shows themselves, trying to create what Clay Williams, a creative director at the Venice ad agency TBWA-Chiat/Day, calls "a seamless transition between the stuff you're tuning into to watch and the commercial."

Commercials for ESPN's "SportsCenter" resemble the parodying tone of "Saturday Night Live" skits. A dancing baby goes from Internet icon to Ally McBeal's imagination to pitch-infant for Blockbuster Video. Nike uses "Bittersweet Symphony," a popular song by the rock group the Verve, to turn a shoe commercial into a music video. An ad campaign for Levi's jeans bears a striking resemblance to MTV's Generation X docudrama "The Real World."

Any wonder, then, that the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences inaugurated an Emmy for commercials last year, with the first winner an HBO spot in which chimpanzees spoke lines from classic films including "The Godfather" and "Network"?

To be sure, the viewing audience is still bombarded by commercials done earnestly--straightforward, consumer-oriented pitches for deodorant, nasal spray and medical care.

And some products may be parody-proof: The day of the tongue-in-cheek feminine hygiene product ad is, blessedly, light years away.

But advertising agencies that do things the old way are confronting a new reality. As generations of young people enter the prized 18- to 49-year-old demographic, commercials will have to adapt to the way they receive information through television.

"A lot of it has to do with the fact that they don't have the same kind of linear way of receiving advertising [as older people]," says Brian Bacino, creative director at the San Francisco-based ad agency Foote Cone and Belding, which experimented recently with a six-part, mini-film ad campaign for Levi's jeans.

"It's more of a collage approach, and they fill in the blanks. If you don't have something that gets them involved, they'll get bored with it."

Even the most entertaining commercials used to sound and look like advertising. The cutesy jingle, for instance, is now considered an anachronism in many ad circles. Better to use a classic rock ballad (i.e. Bob Seger's "Like a Rock," which since 1991 has been Chevy's jingle of choice) or something more au currant (i.e. Nike's use of the Verve's "Bittersweet Symphony").

The Leo Burnett Company in Chicago--long a pillar of tradition, the people who brought you the "Ho-ho-ho" of the Jolly Green Giant and the giggling Pillsbury doughboy--was knocked back on its heels recently when it lost the United Airlines account, reportedly because the "Come Fly the Friendly Skies" approach was deemed out of touch with today's savvier, more cynical consumer.

The paradigm for today's jingle? Last year's commercial for the Volkswagen Golf, in which two guys wander city streets aimlessly in their VW, pick up a couch, drive some more, then drop off the couch because it smells bad. Providing background is an innocuous but hypnotic pop song by the German band Trio, with the refrain "Da da da."

Arnold Communications, the Boston ad agency that created the commercial, is also behind the new Volkswagen Beetle ads, which are short on text, long on texture. In one spot, a fuzzy, almost psychedelic yellow daisy twirls at the viewer, until the image reveals itself as seven conjoined Beetle cars.

"There was a time when viewers were a captive audience because there was no place else to go," says Bob Garfield, who reviews new commercials for the industry trade magazine Advertising Age. "You could say, 'Ring around the collar' really loud and they wouldn't go anywhere."

Now, people will go somewhere. And fast. So fast you're better off entertaining them than providing the kind of useful information normally associated with a product pitch.

A new ad for Gatorade has an immediate visual hook, one that's liable to stay burnished in the viewer's memory while the product itself is glimpsed and quickly forgotten. It features the requisite athletes, only this time they're in black and white, while their blood, sweat and tears are in vivid purples and blues.

Depending on your point of view, ads such as these are either indicative of a medium getting more sophisticated or more insidious.

Put media critic Mark Crispin Miller in the latter camp. "[Commercials] are all trying desperately to be interesting, but that massive effort to attract us is in itself extremely monotonous," says Miller.

But others argue that the commercial-as-mass-entertainment is getting some long-deserved recognition.

"Commercials are setting a sophisticated trend," says Kinka Usher, a veteran director whose recent work includes a Mountain Dew spot in which track star Michael Johnson goes back in time by sprinting around the world. "I think TV programs are trying to emulate them."

Left out of this discussion, of course, is whether a slick, well-made ad actually does Job One--sell the product.

Such memorable campaigns as the Wendy's "Where's the Beef?" spots and Alka Seltzer's "I Can't Believe I Ate the Whole Thing," both done in the 1980s, failed to jolt sales.

"Good advertising and bad advertising work approximately [the same], which is why what I do for a living is largely irrelevant," jokes Ad Age critic Garfield.

In a recent review of the new Volkswagen Beetle spots, Garfield wrote: "The advertising introducing the new Beetle . . . is bright, clever, eye-catching, product-centered. . . . It is also very nearly beside the point--because this car is the right product at the right moment."

Can the same be said for the Gordita?

Clay Williams and Chuck Bennett, the Chiat/Day creative team charged with promoting Taco Bell's new taco, have created a buzz--if not identifiable sales results--with a talking Chihuahua ("Yo Quiero Taco Bell").

The Chihuahua, which began appearing on TV screens late last year, will reappear in new ads set to run around Memorial Day to coincide with the opening of the movie "Godzilla" (Taco Bell has a merchandising tie-in with the film).

Asked to explain the appeal of the dog, Williams and Bennett come up with some high-minded explanations (the Chihuahua is a kind of anti-hero--small, rodent-like, but ultimately lovable), then Williams finally admits: "You know, there's no architecture for this."

For all of the supposed separation between ads and programming, it's remarkable how much the two have in common. TV shows are measured by ratings; commercials by sales figures. TV shows are quickly canceled when they don't show immediate numbers; commercials can be pulled and accounts canceled when a product's sales figures don't improve.

Interviewed in a lounge at Chiat/Day's headquarters (a binocular-shaped, Frank Gehry-designed building), Williams and Bennett, 35 and 44, respectively, exude the future of TV advertising. They're young, driven, media-savvy, dressed in jeans and comfortable shirts, sneakers. And they enthusiastically admit they can't do straightforward ad campaigns. A laxative spot? Forget it. If the two have a creative point of view, it's that they feel the viewer's pain about lousy commercials.

"As an advertiser, the more you can break down the barrier between the ad and the entertainment, the more chance you'll have to get under people's skins," says Williams. "People are super savvy to being sold, and they turn off to it."

"Basically, commercials are an intrusion into your viewing," Bennett interjects. " . . . You have to immediately disarm people with something that interests them."

Even though they didn't do them, both are high on the Beetle ads, saying they manage to be compelling but spare--good to look at, organic to the sales pitch, not overdone.

"At the same time that computers and special effects allow us to do amazing things, they're also a trap," Bennett says. "You start getting into a 'because we can' thing. I think it's refreshing to find work that's based on an idea, executed very purely and very simply."

But when clever ads go wrong, they can be maddeningly obtuse, self-conscious attempts to be above the sell.

Witness the "They Go On" campaign for Levi's jeans, which began running last summer.

Bacino, of Foote, Cone and Belding, thought his team had come up with just the sort of fresh idea that would attract people to Levi's.

Designed as a six-month campaign under the tag line "They Go On," the series of commercials followed the adventures of an unrelated cast of urban Generation X-ers, their only link the fact that they were wearing Levi's jeans.

"We were trying to convey that Levi's are for people who live life their own way, on their own terms," says Bacino.

The ads began running in the summer, but by the end of the year Levi-Strauss had canceled the ads and pulled its $90-million account.

"Like TV networks, advertisers can be impatient for success," Bacino says. "But when you have a company looking for immediate results, that's when you see the least interesting advertising.

"How many times have you been in your living room, seen a commercial, and thought, 'I've gotta go buy that tomorrow'? For an image to stay in the consumer's mind set, you have to do something interesting and provocative."

Certainly, viewers can count on a higher class of ad during the May 14 final episode of "Seinfeld."

NBC set a record when several companies, including Anheuser Busch, Fuji Film and MasterCard International, bought in at the rate of $1.8 million per 30-second commercial.

That exceeds even the Super Bowl. And in this case, presumably, the game won't turn dull and tedious, chasing viewers away.

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