Hilarious, but also wildly inappropriate

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MARKETER: Sutter Home Winery
AGENCY: Goodby, Silverstein
RATING: One and a half stars

Seen anything good lately?" agency principal and creative guru Jeff Goodby asked us, oh, about six months ago.

"Oh, yeah," we replied in about 2 seconds. "Lots of stuff: Fox Sports. Ameritrade. Miller High Life. Discover Brokerage. There's plenty of good stuff out there."

"Uh, huh," Goodby said. "Seen anything good that wasn't funny?"

Now there was an excellent question, and it stopped us cold.

Something good and not funny. This required some thinking. Eventually we came up with AT&T, The Gap, Ameritech and MasterCard. But we had to mull it over a good long time. That's because, as Goodby observed, hardly anyone bothers to produce 30-second commercials anymore that aren't built around comedy. And that, we agreed, is a shame.

Not that there's anything wrong with funny TV commercials, but where is it written that to make a point you have to crack jokes? Many important and persuasive documents have been written over the centuries with no punch lines whatsoever. The Magna Carta. The Gettysburg Address. The Bible (although, the Book of Job, you know, at some point you just gotta laugh).

Anyway, we couldn't help but recall this conversation recently when we encountered a funny--no, hilarious--campaign for Sutter Home Winery. One spot, advertising cabernet, shows a winemaker so absorbed in examining the Sutter Home grapes that she fails to notice federal agents going into the rows of vines behind her to apprehend a space alien, a leprechaun and Sasquatch.

Another, for merlot, shows a winemaker walking through the vineyard and among oak barrels, bemused by the delicate complexity of his product. This spot has absolutely all the elements: the dramatic, smoky sunlight, the slow-motion photography, the mellow bed of strings and piano evoking "entrancing."

This guy is so entranced, in fact, he is wearing his underpants outside his trousers.

Then, in the third spot, we see a Sutter Home vintaculturalist in his lab, as a TV behind him blares with the news headlines:

"Good evening. Here's what's happening. The moon has just exploded. More on that amazing story later. And in medical news, two men have successfully switched heads. They're in good spirits and resting comfortably. And a local resident was attacked by angry squirrels. We must warn you: This footage is graphic."

The wine guy, of course, never flinches because, as the superimposed tagline says, this company is "Way too focused on the wine." Then the voice-over: "Sutter Home. Preoccupied since 1890."

As we said, hilarious.

Also completely, wildly, insanely inappropriate.

If Sutter Home--which sells extremely low-end varietal wines--has any overarching mission in its advertising message, it is to persuade consumers that even at $5 this is quality wine. Maybe it's a beginner's wine or maybe it's an everyday wine, but it isn't jug wine. It's genuine. It's varietal. It's serious.

That doesn't mean necessarily invoking all the cliches that the underwear ad so brilliantly parodies. It does mean, however, not using gags--no matter how memorable--that undercut any claim to seriousness you ever had. This is advertising that could actually harm the advertiser. Though the tagline claim is a company "Way too focused on the wine," the message is exactly the opposite.

Oh, and the agency? Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, San Francisco.

Copyright December 1999, Crain Communications Inc.

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