OLYMPIAN DAVE THOMAS? THAT'S TOUGH SLEDDING

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How do you, personally, feel about the four-man bobsled? Are you passionate about it, or perhaps "somewhat interested" or maybe unable to gauge its hidden effects as it tugs surreptitiously and subconsciously at your psyche?

Let us assume you are, in fact, substantially a four-man bobsled type of individual. What about the luge? Speed skating? One might also wonder how you respond to downhill skiing, women's figure skating and even the modern pentathlon.

One wonders all of these things, of course, because for the next few weeks, you are going to be four-man-bobsledded and luged and speed skated into a chilly torpor. You cannot prevent this. Until early March, you'll no more be able to escape images of ice chips dancing about gleaming skate blades than you can avoid the Bobbitts, the Harding-Gilloolys and those poor, persecuted Menendez boys.

And that is because the advertising industry, when faced with major global TV events such as the Winter Olympic Games in Lillehammer, unfailingly marshals the ingenuity and creative energy of dryer lint. Only with less variety.

Where is it written that spots appearing during the Olympics must be about the Olympics? Where is it written that Wendy's International, in order to sell its do-it-yourself atherosclerosis kits during the Winter Games, must put Dave Thomas in skis, sleds and skates?

Yet there he is, and more's the pity.

Here is a campaign that began four years ago with a wonderful notion and a pitiful execution, then evolved to become something of a masterpiece. Dave, square and old-fashioned just like Wendy's burgers, was placed in situations calling for hipness, trendiness or worldly sophistication that he did not have and would not fake. Instead, with resignation and quiet dignity, he took refuge in the simple pleasures of a Wendy's meal.

The strategy, the writing and the performance came together sublimely, as advertising seldom does. Then, as advertising often does, the central selling message was sacrificed to lame "interest-adding" gimmicks. Problems began with the introduction of a new character, a freeloading cousin who added to Wendy's commercials approximately what Snoopy's cousin Spike added to "Peanuts": less than nothing. Dave was still his sweet, unaffected self, but the spots ceased to be about square, old-fashioned simplicity. They ceased to be about the triumph of dignity over pretension. And, not coincidentally, they stopped being funny.

Thus was there a certain inevitability to the current campaign. With Lillehammer beckoning, Backer Spielvogel Bates, New York, needed only to decide which silly outfits to dress Dave in. Then the horrible copy practically wrote itself.

"Forty-eight!" says the timekeeper as Dave and his bobsled companions finish a run in one of three Olympic-theme spots.

"Forty-eight seconds?" asks Dave's teammate.

"No," replies the timekeeper (get ready for the hilarious twist), "48 minutes." To which Dave can only shake his head.

And well he might. It is only his own hard-won mastery of the guileless-Everyman role that keeps this campaign remotely worthwhile, even as the writers try to turn him into J. Fred Muggs. One fears to think what further indignities he'll be subjected to as coming media mega-events shape the premises for post-Olympic commercials.

Oh, dear God. The Menendez retrial.

Please, Dave. No shotguns.

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