DUCK FILLS THE BILL FOR TELLING US THOM MCAN HAS CHANGED

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Why a duck? Who knows why a duck, but there it is, in a little lake, paddling up to a boat in which a solitary fisherman is slowly reeling in his line. The close-up of the man's eyes is eerie and ominous. The music swells.

"Thom. Thom," the duck says. "Thom McAn. Change the shoes, Thom."

Then a Thom McAn logo and a bunch of quick shots of contemporary shoe styles, with a voice-over pitch: "The new Thom McAn. New shoes, more styles, genuine leather and still very affordable." And then back to the duck.

"Atta boy, Thom."

Atta boy, indeed, for signing off on one of the quirkiest and most delightful TV campaigns in a very long time. Produced by Mad Dogs & Englishmen, New York, it follows a similarly self-deprecating subway poster campaign aimed at changing consumer perceptions about a cheap and tired line of shoes.

The posters were a bit snide, but the TV is weirdly inspired-because while the bizarre characterizations of a lonesome shoe tycoon and a supernatural waterfowl are hilariously novel, the underlying strategy is definitely not.

All manner of marketers have used advertising to acknowledge past mistakes and to try to clean the slate. Lee Iacocca became famous talking up the New Chrysler. Eastern Airlines, desperate to stave off liquidation, admitted to years of lousy service. The 7-Eleven stores poked fun at their own cramped aisles, bad lighting and price gouging. And "Have you driven a Ford lately?" was an implicit condemnation of the Fords they're eager for you to forget.

Retailers in particular seem eager to restage themselves vis-a-vis the decrepit monstrosities they had become. The Limited's tagline, "I love The Limited again," acknowledges the several years when customers had every reason to hate it. Meantime, the new Kmart, the new Sears and the new J.C. Penney all have begged us to forget their chintzy, stuffy and/or wizened past.

"New," after all, implies "improved"-although leave us not forget the New Coke, the New Nixon, the New Christy Minstrels. Egad, the New Congress.

Therein the risk. If the restaged brand is not deemed a dramatic improvement over the old one, credibility can be damaged beyond repair. And the urgency to attract new, younger customers must outweigh the danger of alienating older existing ones, because in truth there are sometimes consequences.

Oldsmobile thought it was enticing young people with "This is not your father's Oldsmobile," but the line backfired. Notwithstanding Alfred Sloan's best laid plans, most Oldsmobile buyers were not Chevy and Pontiac graduates but rather previous Oldsmobile owners, suddenly informed that a) they were old and irrelevant, b) "Ha ha, joke's on you! We've been selling you crap for years!"

The third danger of mea culpa advertising is that the relatively superficial questions of style and image at the heart of makeover campaigns may not be the core marketing problem. Customers haven't responded any better to the new Kmart than the old one, so now the company is looking for a new CEO.

Thom McAn needn't worry too much, however. If it fails, it will be because of the youth strategy itself-not the wonderful spots announcing it. But when the competition is going right for your throat, and you don't want to fight nasty, there's only one thing to do:

Duck.

Ad Age Bulletin Board on Prodigy, or by Prodigy e-mail at EFPB35A.

Client: Thom McAn Shoe Co. Agency: Mad Dogs & Englishmen.

Ad Review Rating: 4 stars

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