Offbeat Black Pearl olive ads are offensive and enthralling

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This is about an extremely peculiar pitted-olive TV campaign, a New York bread baker/Albanian actor from Belgrade and naked, journalistic conflict of interest. Please pay strictest attention; it gets complicated.

The story begins with an e-mail from Jack Neff, Ad Age's package-goods correspondent. He had seen several national commercials for an unfamiliar brand of black olives called Black Pearls. The campaign struck him.

"Having watched it several times, I could argue with equal vehemence to being offended or enthralled."

Jack wrote us. "Sure does drive the icon, though. The Black Pearls packaging looks like a logo for some kind of Italian right-splinter semi-fascist party. It's not forgettable, one way or the other."

Jack suspected, of course, that the Ad Review staff would jump at any quixotic scheme to nationally brand a commodity fruit via TV. What he did not know is that we ourselves are personally acquainted with someone appearing in this campaign.

In one of the spots, co-worker No. 1 is played by our dear friend Uliks Fehmiu, who was a stage-and-screen matinee idol in Yugoslavia while there was still any Yugoslavia to speak of, and who fled war and tyranny eight years ago with a notion of acting in America, and who sounded at the time too much like Boris Badenov to get much work, and instead founded one of the hottest wholesale bakeries in New York (the phenomenal Pain D'Avignon. Don't take our word for it: The New York Times raved.) but who never gave up his acting career, and who recently landed a nice part in an upcoming Monica Potter/Julie Christie flick called "I'm With Lucy," and also a bit part in what he described to us recently as "a commercial about a guy who has olives on his fingers."

Still with us?

So, let's just say, when Jack Neff's e-suggestion came in, we smiled knowingly. We have now seen the entire Black Pearls campaign from Black Rocket, San Francisco. And, having watched it several times, we could argue with equal vehemence to being offended or enthralled. Sure does drive the icon, though. The Black Pearls packaging looks like a logo for some kind of Italian right-splinter semi-fascist party. It's not forgettable, one way or the other.

The campaign is basically Edward Scissorhands, except with plump, pitted olives. One spot takes place in an orphanage, where a little boy is being told how unsuitable he is for adoption, because he has olives lodged on his fingertips. Then, arriving unannounced outside: a kind-looking woman with olives on her fingertips. Then some chilling music in a minor key and a creepy, whispered female voice-over: "Believe in olive fingers." Then the product shot, label design by Il Duce.

A second spot shows an old fellow feeding birds in the park. Passers-by shy away, because he has olive fingers.

The third spot, a :60, takes place in some vaguely Eastern European factory, where a clerical worker cannot type, for the olives on his fingers. When he joins his comrades at lunch, they get up and move to another table. Co-worker No. 1 is especially convincing in his small-minded fear and disdain. His part is not large, but his character jumps from the screen in a moment of cinematic transcendence so profound that it makes us at Ad Review want to buy lots and lots of black olives at premium prices.

Not quite the lead role we're accustomed to seeing Uliks in, but, as they say, there are no small roles, only small, pitted Mediterranean fruits.

As for the advertising value of all this weird black comedy, that's a puzzler. Creating a premium brand out of a bizarre TV campaign and neo-fascist graphics is a marketing challenge, to say the least. But if you're brazen enough to try it, maybe, in this day and age, "The Jolly Green Giant Goes to Hell" is just the right note to hit.

By the way, if the name Fehmiu suddenly seems familiar to the black-olive black-comedy purveyors at Black Pearls and Black Rocket, it's because Uliks' father Bekim was a huge movie star in Europe in the '60s and '70s, and did many Hollywood pictures, as well. His last American film?

"Black Sunday."

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