Garfield's AdReview

By Published on .

A basic principle of message management: When things get uncomfortable, change the subject.

Ask Barry Bonds about steroids, he'll rail about the media. Ask Big Oil about windfall profits, and they get very impassioned about energy conservation. Ask President Bush about missing weapons of mass destruction, and his answer will be about terrorism. Every time.

Even God does it.

Moses: "Yo, Lord, what's with the 400 years of bondage?"

God: "Honor thy father and mother."

So we can't be too surprised that the terrestrial-radio industry (which until recently was just "the radio industry") is suddenly boasting about being free of charge.

Between podcasting and satellite radio, after all, broadcasters are being kicked right where it megahurts. Inevitable losses of audience will lead to erosion in ad rates, exacerbating the ongoing revenue crisis engendered recently when stations cut back on the number of ad spots to keep people fleeing to the mainly ad-free environs of the nascent competition. Meanwhile, the largest station groups, Clear Channel and Viacom's Infinity, had to absorb huge write-downs reflecting the devaluation of their assets.

Save your tears. These people fouled their own nests, not only with commercial clutter but with lowest-common-denominator playlists and ruthless cost-cutting that removed almost all local character-not to mention musical variety-from their air.

The question for Big Radio: How could you people have possibly been so greedy, shortsighted and arrogant?

The answer: Hey! We're free!

Anyway, so says the campaign from DeVito/Verdi, New York, which no doubt won the account on the strength of its brilliant radio work for the horseracing industry. Sure enough, the clever agency is clever here, too, imagining the real price of pay radio in a series of comic spots simulating various genres of programming. There's a ball game, a weather report, a traffic update and various other bits, all interrupted at a critical moment, such as in this faux celebrity-gossip item:

"Hollywood is abuzz with gossip! Guess which $20 million leading man has finally decided to come out of the closet? Once one of Tinseltown's most eligible bachelors, he's about to reveal the personal life he's been hiding from fans for years. Think you know who I'm talking about? Uh-uh! It's veteran stage and screen actor..."

But just then screeches that odd phone-company warning tone-BEEP....BWEEP...BEEP-and the robo-operator recorded message: "Please deposit 25¢ for the next three minutes."

Then the tagline: "Radio. You shouldn't have to pay for it. This message brought to you by America's 13,000 local radio stations, who believe some things were just meant to be free."

Yes, it's a very cute gag-at first hearing. But it takes only a few moments of further thought to recognize the gaping holes in the premise:

1) Free radio isn't free at all. It's a quid pro quo: homogenized music and bite-sized fascist demagoguery in exchange for listening to 793 amateurishly produced commercials per hour. What's really free is podcasting, which this campaign ignores.

2) Anyone who wants to listen to broadcast radio still can. It is not being confiscated.

3) Who says the ad-supported model is the natural order of things? Where is that inscribed?

4) The goal apparently is to remind us to cherish free radio before it comes to harm, but what's the call to action? Write your congressman? Don't subscribe? Firebomb Sirius? What?

5) We've seen this before. Forty years ago, the National Association of Broadcasters launched a campaign called "Save Free TV," aiming to create grassroots hysteria about the then fledgling cable industry. Hmm, trying to remember....

...how did that work out?

Review 1.5 stars

Ad: Radio

Agency: DeVito/Verdi

Location: New York

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