CONTROVERY, SCHMONTROVERSY: NO NEED TO WONDER WHERE THE YELLOW WENT IN WHAT MAY BE THE MOST CONTENTIOUS CAMPAIGN SINCE CALVIN KLEIN DID KIDDIE PORN. ABC TOOK IT STRAIGHT TO THE BANK, THOUGH TBWA CHIAT/DAY MIGHT HAVE BEEN BETTER OFF WITHOUT THE COMPOUND INTEREST.: ALL THAT JASMINE

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If you've ever wished your new ads would attract more attention, Rich Siegel has some advice for you: Be careful what you wish for.

Siegel is the soft-spoken copywriter who, along with art director John Shirley, dreamed up TBWA Chiat/Day's ironic "TV is Good" campaign for ABC. Siegel insists he wasn't trying to start trouble, corrupt children, or (heaven forbid) inject cynicism into American advertising. He was just expressing an idea that seemed obvious to him: that we all watch TV and there's no reason to feel guilty about it, though many of us do. Siegel and Shirley thought it might be interesting to make light of this human condition in a network ad campaign-at the very least, they figured, it would stand apart from the typical "Must See TV" sloganeering that passes for network advertising.

So, Siegel and Shirley dressed up their idea with irony and a splash of yellow, and presented it to executives at ABC, who liked its freshness and candor. In fact, ABC liked it so much, the network previewed the campaign as part of its promotion for the new fall season, trumpeting the ads to journalists from around the country. That's when all hell broke loose.

In the ensuing days and weeks, almost every major newspaper in the country wrote about the campaign, often with bold-faced headlines. Reporters were calling Chiat's Venice, Calif., office not just from New York, Chicago and Washington, but from as far away as London. Before long, the feeding frenzy reached stage two-the broadcast media (including CNN, CNBC, Good Morning America, National Public Radio, and the E! network) picked up on the print media coverage and began calling TBWA Chiat/Day with requests that the creators of the campaign come on the air to explain themselves.

"I was doing four to five interviews a day," says agency president Bob Kuperman, who decided to act as frontman for the besieged Siegel and Shirley. "I've never experienced anything like this. When I found myself getting a call from Australian radio, I knew something pretty strange was going on." Perhaps the strangest moment of all: When the campaign became a topic of debate on Bill Maher's Politically Incorrect (on ABC), providing a forum for the rotund John Popper of Blues Traveler to opine about the ads (he actually kinda liked 'em).

But it wasn't just the extent of the media interest that caught the agency off guard; it was the tone of the coverage, as well, which sometimes bordered on hostile. While many ad critics lauded the campaign for its distinctiveness, general-opinion columnists and TV reporters were more likely to attack it. There were charges that the ads were overly cynical; that they defended TV; that they defamed TV; that they had nothing to do with ABC's shows; that they were too expensive and had fared poorly in focus group testing (not true, insists ABC). An ad headlined "Hobbies, schmobbies" even drew the ire of the Hobby Industry Association. Some of the most bizarre criticism came from The New York Times' Maureen Dowd, who seemed miffed by the campaign's use of yellow. With perhaps willful naivete, Dowd told readers: "ABC paid TBWA Chiat/Day $40 million to come up with yellow." (Actually, $40 million is the billings figure, not the agency's fee.)

At the Venice office, some were stunned by the reaction to what the agency saw as largely innocuous, tongue-in-cheek ads. "We never thought the ads would cause so much . . . intellectual masturbation," says Kuperman. Jeremy Miller, the agency publicist who found himself in the center of the media storm, says: "What surprised me were the weird things people were focusing on-the dollar amount, the yellow, all this stuff that seemed to miss the point of the ads."

It was enough to make sane men slightly paranoid, especially sane men who are still smarting from the trade press attacks on Nissan's dubious Mr. K. Siegel began calling his office before going to work each day, to find out what potential ambushes were awaiting him. He couldn't help taking some of the criticism of his campaign personally. In mid-August, as the affair was coming to a boil, he began firing off letters to The Times and other publications, the gist of his position being: "Lighten up, guys." (His letters weren't printed.) He also sent a note to Donny Deutsch, who had called the ads "derivative" in one of several Times stories about the campaign (Siegel pointed out that a man who inherits his father's ad agency could also be called derivative).

As the saturated media coverage continued, it seemed that virtually everyone felt the urgent need to chime in. Debate about the campaign soon gave way to parody. The most notorious spoof came from NBC, which ran its own mock-yellow ad after Seinfeld. The titles read: "You could be watching another network right now, but you're not stupid, you're watching the No. 1 network. Thanks."

ABC fired a multipage fax back to NBC: "Right now, you could be writing original promos; but you're not; you're copying ours; thanks." At Hollywood studios, people were faxing their own twists on the campaign, while obscure New York poetry clubs paid homage to it with posters.

By now, with many of ABC's shows having failed to live up to the hype generated by the ads, the buzz has finally subsided. But the question remains: Why did the ABC campaign get more attention than any advertising in recent years (with the possible exception of the Calvin Klein kiddie porn flap)? Unlike typical ads that become the subject of controversy, the ABC ads are not sexist or otherwise offensive. They're not particularly thought-provoking; they're mildly amusing, but not hilarious. Interestingly, the ads attracted "only a handful of letters" from the public, according to ABC.

At TBWA Chiat/Day, this particular Twilight Zone episode is still under debate. Kuperman notes that all the "prelaunch hoopla" stoked the potentially malicious interest of television industry reporters who were already swirling around the wounded ABC and its controversial new entertainment president, Jamie Tarses (she approved and strongly supported the ads). Some feel the ad campaign got caught up in the controversy about Tarses, though Kuperman isn't willing to go that far: "I don't know if there was a connection, but there was an interesting similarity in the way the press prejudged the campaign-just as they did with Jamie's lineup of new shows."

It may be that the story was simply irresistible to the print press pundits because it allowed them to bash not one but two favorite pinatas-advertising and television. Kuperman hypothesizes that there was an element of East Coast literary snobbery in the attitude toward the campaign that surfaced in The Times and The Journal. "To some extent, this became a print vs. TV thing, and we got caught in the middle," he says.

Miller believes that, more than anything else, the episode is an illustration of the media's tendency to endlessly regurgitate its own stories. The way he sees it, the snowball effect began with the influential Dowd, whose column signaled that this was an important story. "As you watched the coverage unfold, it became clear that reporters were reading each other's stories, and in some cases quoting the opinions of other journalists," he says.

Finally, Princess Diana hadn't died yet. The campaign broke in the doldrums of mid-August, during a slow news period. "If it happened now, it wouldn't get that kind of coverage," says Kuperman.

That probably would have been just fine with Siegel and Kuperman, though ABC certainly wouldn't trade in all of that free publicity-you can't buy this kind of coverage, anyway. The agency maintains that the ads have generated a 75 percent increase in the level of interest in ABC's new shows. "We created a pop culture event," says Alan Cohen, the network's executive VP-marketing. "We didn't plan to do that, but that's not necessarily a bad thing." Cohen, clearly a subscriber to the no-news-is-bad-news theory, even thought the biting Dowd column was "terrific, because it heightened the exposure."

At TBWA Chiat/Day, the reaction is more mixed. "I was frustrated that our side of the story never got out," laments Kuperman. "But I guess the idea that you can manipulate a story like this is a fallacy-once these things start down the road, it's a bitch to turn them around."

All that Jasmine

Rubber duckies and taxis. Lemons, bananas and egg yolks. Post-it notes and pencils. Tweety, Woodstock and Big Bird. Brave Brave Sir Robin. Jaundice. Some of TBWA Chiat/Day's more recent printwork. What do they all have in common? Yellow, that's what.

Chiat/Day is suffering from a prolonged attack of yellow fever. Besides the ABC campaign, TBWA Chiat/Day has produced license-plate yellow Nissan teasers that offered early Mr. K. support, along with more recent print work for the Altima that also warbles like a canary. Over at the New York office, meanwhile, the new Wonderbra campaign looks a bit like ABC with a rack.

The ABC work has also piqued the unfavorable interest of New York agency The Ad Store, whose Web site (www.the-adstore.com) has dedicated a section to mocking the print campaign. Under the title, "The Ad Store Presents: The Color Yellow," they change copy from, for example, "You can talk to your wife anytime," to "You can beat your wife after prime time." Another parody reads, "Watch ABC, then stick the clicker up your ass."

At the TBWA Chiat/Day site (www.tbwachiat.com), there is nothing about the ABC

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