Next week this publication will announce its 1997 agency of the year, and we personally are on the edge of our seats. On the other hand, to us it's a moot question, because for our money, the agency of the year, and the previous year, and the three years before that is Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, San Francisco.
What's unusual about Goodby isn't its uncanny ability to come up with well-produced, entertaining ads for all kinds of clientele. The unusual thing is how smart the campaigns are. How strategic. How pointed. How brand-building. It took more than comedy instincts, for instance, to create "Got milk?" It took insight. What an ingenious, counterintuitive solution to skip all the hitherto compulsory nutrition stuff and position milk as something like a smoke detector: i.e., a product you simply have to have on hand for those moments when circumstances demand it.
And while the agency's trademark is humor-by-verisimilitude, as seen in the brilliant Southwestern Bell campaign and the magnificent Isuzu "Toy Store" spot, the source of the brilliance isn't the flawless comic production. It's the brave, inspired acknowledgment that telemarketing is an evil enterprise and a 4x4 is the ultimate grown-up toy.
Similar surprises, delights and strategic bull's-eyes have benefited everyone from Polaroid to Budweiser to the University of San Francisco. Which therefore begs this week's question: Where did these obnoxious Foster Farms ads come from?
The 3-year-old campaign is about two chickens -- played (not too amusingly) by guys in funny, beady-eyed chicken costumes -- who aspire to being Foster Farms poultry, but who are in fact out-of-state pretenders. The Foster Imposters, they're called (a rhyme that brings to mind the wise owl in "The Simpsons," instructing: "Give a hoot. Read a book.")
The latest pool of spots has the Imposters doing the usual zany high jinks to masquerade as California chickens: spinning in a laundromat washer to marinate themselves, performing liposuction to be lower in fat and so forth.
Does it sound familiar? Of course it does. The Imposters are, basically, latter-day Charlie the Tunas. Charlie wanted to be hooked, killed, canned and eaten for the honor of being a Star-Kist tuna. These undocumented chickens want to be butchered for the glory of Foster Farms.
Insipid though it may now seem, in its time the Charlie campaign was regarded as witty. Certainly it made its point: the persistent, pretentious albacore was constantly rejected, because Star-Kist didn't want tunas with good taste; it wanted tunas that taste good. You could argue that the cartoon depiction didn't make tuna look too palatable -- but this was a canned good that no shopper ever judged on appearance.
The Foster Imposters, by contrast, are categorically unpalatable in a category that depends on in-store judgments about what looks best to eat. Yeah, yeah, yeah . . . they represent the unworthy competition. But consumers are seeing Foster Farms again and again connected with two scraggly, annoying, most unappetizing birds. Do shoppers understand the "imposter" conceit? Maybe. Will that understanding override distasteful associations? We wouldn't bet on it.
This busy, noisy campaign is so strategy-minded -- fending off frozen imports -- and so desperate to be clever it forgets the visceral facts of life at point of purchase:
Americans increasingly watch what we eat. So it's probably a good idea to make us want to eat what we watch.