IRREVERENT AOL WELCOMES US WITH GOOFY STEREOTYPES

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The tagline of the first-ever TV campaign for America Online is a one-word greeting: "Welcome."

Hey, thanks.... but, uh, welcome to precisely what? The first four 15-spots from TBWA Chiat/Day, New York, contain virtually nothing in the way of brand benefits. Or explanation of what is being sold. Or claims of superiority or value. Or any evidence of the desire-apart from establishing postmodern credentials of iconoclasm-to enlighten, inspire or persuade.

One of the spots is weirdly hilarious, two others are weirdly amusing, one is weirdly insulting and all of them are weirdly irrelevant: four punch lines in search of an advertising campaign.

"See that, Sissy?" begins one spot, with a scruffy blue-collar worker pecking at his home computer and speaking to his little girl. She is watching television, oblivious to her father's excitement. "I'm talkin' to some fella in Washington, D.C. He's what they call `pro-Nafta."'

Then the camera focuses on the kid, as we hear the father pump a shotgun and blast his computer.

"Maw," the kid says, indifferently, "Paw done shot up the America Online agin."

Then a title card and a voice-over: "America Online. Welcome!"

That is by far the worst, but by no means the most uninformative, of the first four spots. Another one has prizefighter Peter McNeeley (the palooka who was dispatched by Mike Tyson in a minute and a half) discussing online sports scores-before being hustled away by his thuggish handlers. Another has a scenery-chewing Adam West, TV's Batman, in a psychotic delusion that he's an actual superhero.

And strangest of all is a pointless but wonderful spot that begins with an ape's hand manipulating a computer mouse. Against the swelling background of the Richard Strauss music that became the theme of "2001: A Space Odyssey," a pullback shot reveals the furry hand to belong to a white-shirted computer nerd wearing an ape glove.

"Boy," he says, "that would have been even easier without the monkey glove."

Very, very funny-but to what purpose? The advertiser insists, with a straight face, that this oddball cast of caricatures speaks to and embraces the diversity of its clientele, welcoming Americans of all types and interests into the big tent of online service.

Well, making fun of people is not embracing them. Portraying Southerners and blue-collar workers as trigger-happy imbeciles is not how to entice such consumers into the fold. A string of goofy stereotypes does not constitute diversity. What it constitutes, if anything, is condescension.

But don't bog down in how the big tent is really a three-ring circus, because-no matter what AOL President Ted Leonsis has persuaded himself of-this campaign doesn't hinge on "creating a sense of community." It hinges on creating brand personality.

If it works, it will do so by impressing viewers with AOL's fearless irreverence. There's a market for attitudewear, so maybe there's a market for attitudeware. But who exactly is looking for attitude from an online service? Fearless irreverence is all well and good, but reckless irrelevance can keep America offline.

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