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Move over, Mr. K, and make room for Mr. C. In this age of postmodern, self-referential advertising, it was perhaps inevitable that some advertiser would think it hip to co-opt another advertiser's cartoon spokescharacter. But Mr. Clean? In a Honda ad? Is nothing sacred?

The bald Buddha of household cleansing is the star of a current print and television campaign from Rubin Postaer & Associates for the Accord LEV Low-Emission Vehicle. Agency chief Larry Postaer reckons this just might be the first time an ad character has been used to promote a completely unrelated product; "I'm sure this is breaking new ground," says Postaer. And in terms of equal rights for cartoon characters, it's long overdue: If flesh-and-blood endorsers like Shaquille O'Neal can promote everything under the sun, why not Mr. Clean? Or, for that matter, the Jolly Green Giant, who makes Shaq look like a shrimp?

The idea of using Mr. Clean in the campaign was a no-brainer, according to the creative team of art director Joe Baratelli and copywriter David Smith, who worked with producer Tony Stearns. (The spot was directed by Doug Taub at Petermann/Moss, with editing by Mark Goodman at Lost Planet and music by Piece of Cake's Don Piestrup.) It began with the core attribute of the LEV car -- its clean-running engine. In need of someone who could embody cleanliness, Baratelli and Smith had limited options: Felix Unger? Cal Ripken? Lady MacBeth? Nobody could measure up to Mr. Clean, who is, as Baratelli notes, "an icon that transcends just being an ad character. He's part of the vernacular. In fact, his name is often used as a nickname for people who are neat and clean."

Indeed, the nickname idea became part of the copy of the campaign, which points out that people using the low-emission car soon may find that their neighbors are referring to them by a new last name. (Interesting appeal, though it does raise the question: Would anybody actually like being dubbed Mr. Clean?) Coming up with the idea of using Mr. Clean was only a first step: Postaer knew that the agency had to proceed with caution in borrowing a classic icon. "When anything even resembling somebody else's character shows up in an ad, people tend to get sued," he said, noting the recent dispute involving Mattel and Nissan's "Toys" commercial.

Moreover, the owner of the Mr. Clean trademark is Procter & Gamble, known for being fiercely protective of its brands. "The real issue was, would Procter & Gamble go for this," says Postaer.

Ordinarily, suggesting such an unconventional proposal to the P&G bureaucracy would be a surefire way to elicit stony silence at best. But in this case, the agency got a surprisingly enthusiastic response -- because Mr. Clean, as it happened, was in need of a lift. With Mr. Clean's products having been in a slight sales slump over the past year, P&G knew that the brand could benefit from primetime exposure (Mr. Clean advertising usually appears only in daytime). "The Mr. Clean marketing team saw this as a unique opportunity to leverage the popularity of Mr. Clean by being part of an exciting new ad campaign," says P&G spokesman Damon Jones, who acknowledged that this represents "the first time we've done this with one of our icons."

In fact, says Postaer, P&G encouraged the agency and Honda to broaden the campaign beyond the original print concept to include TV.

To put Mr. Clean in their ads, Rubin Postaer had to hire the company that creates the animation for the character; the Mr. Clean images were overlaid on print ads and commercials that featured no other animation. Honda is also using life-size cutout figures of Mr. Clean on the showroom floor at dealerships. And as part of the agreement, the two companies are co-sponsoring a Mr. Clean sweepstakes, which will offer Honda cars as prizes.

For P&G, it is certainly a sweetheart arrangement -- considering that they're not paying for the ads. If no one even notices Mr. Clean in these ads, the company has lost nothing. Honda, on the other hand, is in an entirely different situation: By featuring someone else's brand and spokescharacter in their ads, the advertiser risks the possibility of overshadowing its own brand and product. There is always the chance that Mr. Clean will draw attention away from the car -- leaving dazed TV viewers unsure as to whether they should go out and buy an Accord, or maybe just wax the floor instead.

Baratelli isn't particularly concerned that Mr. Clean will steal the show. After all, the strapping bald guy may be an advertising legend, but he's not exactly Mr. Personality. In characteristic fashion, Mr. Clean doesn't do very much in the Honda ads, other than stand around with brawny arms folded, looking not unlike a Teamster.

In fact, like a Teamster, Mr. Clean has lots of things that he just won't do -- as Baratelli discovered when P&G presented him with a laundry list of rules about the use of the character. Mr. Clean doesn't talk. He won't get in a car. He won't drive a boat. He'll smile, but just a little -- "he's not allowed to show teeth when he smiles," says Baratelli. The character also can't interact with human beings, whether in a sexual manner or otherwise. Asked why Mr. Clean is forced to endure such strict rules of behavior, P&G's Jones is bizarrely tightlipped: "We're not at liberty to talk about that."

Honda and Rubin Postaer are happy with the campaign so far, and plan to produce more Mr. Clean spots for the Accord LEV in the months ahead. That the character doesn't laugh or perform high jinks doesn't bother them -- they intend to get

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