Bad dot-com ads are bad news for ad biz, but too few see peril

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Way back in the '80s, if you put a few drinks into an agency executive (not hard) and got him complaining (also not hard) about the forces destroying the advertising industry from within, the grievances would invariably alight on two culprits: politicians and the cigarette industry.

Pols were the safe and more public choice. Every two years, as ugly, angry, repetitive campaign commercials flooded the airwaves, agency chieftains would vent their fear that consumers and clients might blame Madison Avenue for the sorry spectacle. This led more than a few agency types to recommend putting legal shackles on political advertising. I even recall Alex Kroll, then the leader of Young & Rubicam, advocating restrictions on political spots. (This was before Alex became an advertising guru for presidential candidate Bill Bradley.)

Such remonstrations were sadly ironic, of course, for these same agency folk were always quick on the draw when politicians (and others) advocated legal restraints on the content of tobacco advertising. The advertising trade organizations would get all huffy about the First Amendment; there'd be passionate debate about the legitimacy of the Posadas decision (the 1986 Supreme Court ruling that affirmed government's ability to limit some advertising for lawful activities); and everything would then settle down into a conventional state of mutual inaction.

But in the back rooms, many were the ad execs who fretted that their defense of cigarette advertising--compelled, some said, by the powerful tobacco-and-cheese conglomerate Philip Morris Cos.--would come back to diminish the standing of ad agencies and their product, prompting the very regulatory disaster they feared.

I bring up this ancient history not to dwell on the follies of the past or the remarkable ability of advertising to outlive its own terrors, but to point out that the industry is now facing a real evil within that will most surely wreak upon it the havoc that neither political spots nor cigarette ads ever could. That nemesis is dot-com advertising. If agencies, and the media that run their work, had any sense, they would seek to can this trash as quickly as you can cough "Marlboro Man."

Dot-com advertising is exposing the fraudulence that lies just beneath the surface of the agency business. For every pitch-session paean to the power of "reason-why" copy, there is now a dot-com spot so maddeningly obscure that one wonders whether the writers are native English speakers. For each invocation of creativity, there's a hackneyed trick that makes Procter & Gamble advertising look original.

An industry that is supposed to worship research is assaulting the public with seat-of-the-pants nonsense. Dot-com advertising is, in short, the "talented Mr. Ripley" of the marketing-communications trade, the innocuous seeming look-alike that eventually takes over, undermines and destroys its patron.

Mind you, I am manifestly not referring to the campaigns focused on flatulence and violence to animals, which earlier in the year attracted so much disgust and attention. These, I thought, were aber- rations, products of marketers so desperate for notice they would try anything, including techniques more suitable for public access cable. Did they work? Well, CNet, a pioneering Web media outlet that featured a proctological exam in one TV spot, was rewarded with losses in the second half of 1999 that just about equalled the $65 million it spent on the so-called branding campaign. A pity. CNet is pretty good--not that you'd know it from watching the tube.

My ire is aimed less at the shock than at the schlock. The other night, I found myself mesmerized by a spot for one Keen.com, which was so opaque it made Bill Clinton's grand jury testimony seem lucid. (The site itself is little better; it appears to be a sort of an Internet-based 900-number service on which people with "questions" pay to get connected, by phone, to people with "answers.")

Then there's the Pets.com sock puppet. Cute? Original? Puh-leeeze. It's Jerry Della Femina's Fingerman, in hosiery. This work--indeed, the vast majority of dot-com advertising--is so utterly banal it should cause any half-sane human to question the very value of the advertising enterprise.

What I wonder is this: Where are the industry statesmen who were so quick to condemn political and cigarette advertising for their deleterious impact on the industry? If I were a client and you came to me with this dot-com drek on your reel, I'd not only show you the door, I'd cut my ad budget in half. If this is what the advertising industry considers advertising, then the agency business is in a truly sorry state.

Mr. Rothenberg can be reached at rothenberg_randall@strategy-business.com .

Copyright March 2000, Crain Communications Inc.

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