Garfield's AdReview

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There's probably only one thing that can save America Online, and it isn't an ad campaign.

Powerful force though advertising may be, it can't neutralize certain structural problems facing the world's largest Internet service provider.

Dial-up service is the buggy whip of the 21st century, gradually being replaced by the broadband connections, and AOL can't string broadband lines into your home the way your phone company or cable company can.

At the same time, it's losing dial-up market share to no-frills ISPs, because ...

... AOL trades on its proprietary content, much of it little more than advertorial material for Time Warner, while competing portals-notably Yahoo-give content and services away for free.

So let's just say that there's only so much you can expect from the new AOL campaign from BBDO, New York, which is positioning the online pioneer, essentially, as the best damned buggy whip money can buy. Eight new commercials, three of them now on the air, delineate the state-of-the-art features making AOL a safe and (eventually) satisfying online experience.

Each of them imagines AOL as a welcoming, sport-shirt-wearing, your-friends-at-Saturn kind of online club, where members have the run of the place and the organization's ear at all times. In real life, of course, your friends at the club are a little busy at the moment laying off your other friends at the club, but the conceit works.

Maybe the best of the spots is the all-encompassing "Manifesto," in which a member named Kimberly crashes a management meeting and mounts the conference table to issue an increasingly impassioned plea:

"I think that we could monitor kids' chat rooms and it would be really super if I could get a report card of my kids' online activity. Oooh, and spam! I want automatic spam blocking and virus blocking and pop-up-blocking without having to do anything. And customer service! How about someone live, 24-hours a day, seven days a week, 52 weeks of the year? Huh?!"

To which the big boss replies: "You've got it."

"OK," she says, caught off-guard by the instant acquiescence. "Then ... keep up the good work!"

The payoff is cute, and the actress's performance is irresistible-for all the good that will do. Being protected from porn is pale comfort when the porn takes just forever to load. The manufacture can gild it or cover it in jewels, but a fancy buggy whip is still obsolete.

So if eye-catching TV commercials with truthful, reasonably compelling claims can't make a difference to AOL, whatever in the world can? Well, that's simple. For this advertiser to overcome marketplace reality and confound superior competition, it must stop talking about parental safeguards, virus protection and spam.

If this company wants to succeed with an inferior product, it needs to distract attention from its intrinsic self. It needs to direct the public's focus away from measurable competitive disadvantages. It needs to talk about the one thing proven to motivate Americans to ignore the most obvious failings. And that one thing is, of course:

Gay marriage.

Bob Garfield's book, "And Now, a Few Words from Me" is now out in paperback from McGraw-Hill.

America Online

BBDO, New York

Ad Review Rating: 3 stars

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