BOB GARFIELD'S AD REVIEW: DIET COKE ACHIEVES MAXIMUM ANNOYANCE

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Old joke: A guy answers a knock on his door and finds nobody there, but he looks down and sees a snail, which he picks up and heaves into the yard. Four years later there's another knock on the door. Again, nobody there but the snail, who looks up and says, "What was that all about?"

See the new Diet Coke campaign. Identify with the snail.

This enigmatic serial from Wieden & Kennedy, Portland, Ore., launches you for no apparent reason on a journey you don't care to undertake, leaving you eventually exhausted, fed up and just as clueless as you were when you started. The characters borrow a bit from "Saturday Night Fever," a bit from the Loud family (PBS, circa 1970), a bit from the George Costanza-and-parents relationship on "Seinfeld" and a bit from the short-lived Ragu spaghetti-sauce ad serial of the '80s.

Mom: "So, did you get the job?"

Dad: "Yeah, did you get the job?"

Mom: "The job . . . did you get it?"

Dad: "Yeah, did you get the job?"

Son: "No, somebody else got the job."

And so forth, at their circa-1961 dinette set, until, after three irritating installments, we discover that this young man lost out on the out-of-town job to his girlfriend, who is leaving him. His parents yammer away, as he drinks a can of Diet Coke.

Just for the waste of it.

Maybe this is supposed to be inscrutably, intrusively novel. Or maybe it's supposed to be a "lifestyle" campaign invoking real instead of idealized lifestyles. Or maybe it's supposed to be a wry commentary on X-generational angst, so that young consumers will be charmed, and connect emotionally with the brand. Or all three.

But what it is most of all is just annoying. The spots have conflict, but no story; quirkiness, but no cleverness; a condescending tone, but no ring of truth. The characters are supposed to be exaggerated archetypes, like the hilarious Costanzas, but they are really just vaguely obnoxious caricatures. Their ongoing non-saga leaves you nothing but that uncomfortable feeling of being put on.

"Saturday Night Fever," by contrast, was rich with anthropological significance, capturing the fine details and mundane pathologies of the ordinary Brooklyn family. Those dinner scenes pulsated with petty conflict, and we cared -- and related -- because the fictional relationships seemed so real.

These Diet Coke characters rather more resemble the pitiable Louds, "An American Family," who paraded their real-life pettiness before PBS audiences in prime time. They were so ostentatiously dysfunctional that it was difficult to empathize. They were freaks. We gaped, but didn't care.

Nor did anyone care about the Ragu family, who came to us in a series of spots done up in the style of an unfunny sitcom. Indeed, they were so successfully insipid that consumers showed no interest in their kitchen high jinks whatsoever.

And so, too, this strangely stilted Diet Coke campaign. The gimmick will get attention all right, but not the kind of attention it wants. Hostility does not contribute to brand personality.

A second serial, featuring a terrible actor in an badly written scenario about a father-daughter birds and bees discussion, is nearly as inexplicable and grating. And it is not too difficult to imagine put-upon consumers -- bewildered about what that was all about -- making their point with a slow, methodical, snail stampede toward Diet Pepsi.

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