Overkill smothers Pac Bell's message

By Published on .

Advertiser: Pacific Bell
Agency: Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, San Francisco
Ad Review rating: 2 1/2 stars

Do you put Roquefort dressing on beluga caviar? No, you do not. Do you add a saxophone part to Beethoven's Ninth? No. There'd be no point. If you are being paid $30 million to punch somebody repeatedly in the face and abdomen, do you really need to be snacking on his ear?

No, no, no.

Not only is enough enough, a little bit more is quite often far too much. There is no need to gild the lily, for the lily is already beautiful quite by itself--as Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, of all agencies, surely must know.

And yet, in a new spot for Pacific Bell, the agency that hitherto has been known for stylish simplicity suddenly is showing up to the party garishly overdressed.

The spot, titled "The Message," focuses on a fidgety 7-year-old boy as he rewinds his mom's answering machine and attempts to deliver the messages he presumably has just erased. From the outset, you can see that director Marc Chiat is going for style points; the spot is all skewed angles and sepia tones, slashing pans and wobbly zooms, flashing jump cuts and hollow, cavernous sound. Indeed, the kid is so far off mike, it's hard to understand what he says when he begins to speak:

"The meeting has been changed because, um ... we're not going to have the meeting today. We're going to go to the zoo to get ice cream, um, whatever."

Apparently, he's trying to remember and repeat one of the phone messages, but not quite getting it right.

This is 100% of the idea. At this stage, the point is established, but instead of milking it in the Goodby fashion for its comic human truth, this spot chooses to embroider it with cinematic affectation. Too much art, that is, when Art Linkletter would do.

On a coloring book opened on the coffee table, the camera scans the book's large, sans-serif caption: "Recently," it reads, "Logan's mother got the Message Center." Then there is a quick cut to a zoom move on a picture frame. But there is no picture within, only another line of type: "This is why."

Then, after this odd and utterly unnecessary bit of exposition, more of Logan, the messenger: "Mark wants you to meet him at 1201 at 8 o'clock in Oakland or San Francisco, Sacramento or whatever that place is."

The kid's ingenuous indifference to geographical detail would be funny, and poignant, were it not so heavily swathed in ostentatious gold leaf obscuring the sweet, simple comedy of the premise. By the time the endframe comes on ("Pacific Bell. Maybe you need the Message Center, too?"), all the froufrou is just unbearable.

Compare this spot to Goodby's own brilliant and hilarious Southwestern Bell campaign. One intercuts a homey family dinner scene with a telemarketing boiler room, capturing both tableaus perfectly as an evening meal is spoiled by an unsolicited phone pitch at precisely the worst moment. Another portrays a frazzled housewife calling her husband at work to complain about her day. The payoff is that he's a space shuttle astronaut, in orbit.

Clearly, these are elaborate productions--but not one iota more production than is necessary to achieve verisimilitude, sell the joke and convey the point.

A child fracturing phone messages is, all by itself, a powerful and universally understood selling idea. Why pour Roquefort all over it? Or, put another way: Why bite off more than the viewer can chew?

Copyright July 1997, Crain Communications Inc.

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