PRE-EMPTIVELY SPEAKING, CRAIN CLAIMS VICTORY OVER GARFIELD

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Dare i proclaim victory? Has ad columnist Bob Garfield finally changed his mind about pre-emptive advertising?

Bob has argued, unpersuasively, that such ad devices are deceitful. His specific point was that TV commercials for Tetley tea were "disingenuous" -- like all advertising pre-emption -- because they made a claim that any other tea marketer could have made.

Tetley ads focused on its "tiny little leaves" and said: "We Tetley tea folk wouldn't choose anything but tiny little leaves. They're our secret source of Tetley's pure tea taste." Bob wrote in his weekly column a while back that since most tea marketers use chopped-up tea in their tea bags it was not truthful to imply that Tetley was the only one to chop or grind or whatever their leaves.

Here was my acid reaction to that thesis: "Au contraire, Bobby boy, an advertiser has a perfect right to seize on a product feature that nobody else realizes is a big advantage." Was it unfair for Wonder bread to claim that it "helps build strong bodies 12 ways" when other breads had the same nutrients? Or for Quaker Puffed Wheat and Puffed Rice to use the slogan "Shot from guns" when everybody used the same equipment to puff up their cereals?

Now it appears Bob is coming around to my way of thinking. In what he calls "a bold stroke of advertising pre-emption," Bob heaps praise on Six Flags Over Texas for showing a kid upchucking after he rides the roller coaster (AA, June 1).

Bob writes approvingly that Six Flags "has become the first amusement-park marketer to take a categorical pro-barf positioning. This leaves Disney, Busch Gardens and the rest to carve out their own unique niches -- strolling cute gigantic vermin, storybook adventures made real, vertigo-induced seizures, what have you -- or throw up their hands in defeat."

I read his column over several times, looking for the fine print or at the very least an asterisk proclaiming the Six Flags ad was unfair because any other park could rightly claim that their roller coaster also causes riders to throw up.

But no such disclaimer appeared. In fact, Bob proclaimed the Six Flags spot "perfectly captures that perverse teen macho, laughing at the phenomenon and validating it at the same time.

"It is adolescent in a market heavily dependent on adolescents, daring in a category built on the dare."

That sounds awfully like capitulation to me. Or am I missing some nuances here? Bob objected to the Tetley Tea ad partly on the grounds that Tetley implied that it used tiny tea leaves for purity reasons when it really did it that way for ease of processing. So Bob labeled the Tetley commercial "an untruthful selling proposition."

Bob is an avid tea drinker, and I suppose he knows about such things, but isn't it plausible that chopping up the leaves not only expedites processing but also enhances the purity of the tea? I think he is a little too quick to condemn Tetley for something he might not be completely informed about.

But my point is that Bob might be more favorably impressed with the Six Flags advertising because there is absolutely no doubt that roller coasters can cause kids and other people to get sick to their stomach.

In other words, perhaps Bob doesn't really object -- and never did object -- to pre-emptive advertising claims, as long as those claims are of a truthful nature!

To put it another way: Whether or not other marketers could, if they thought about it, make similar claims is not as important to Bob as whether the little Tetley tea leaves actually enhance purity or the Six Flags roller coaster actually causes you to spill your cookies.

I don't pretend to know what goes on in the inner workings of Bob's mind, but I'll wager to say that the foregoing examination is as close as anyone has come.

Please don't thank me. It's all in a day's work.

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