Prodigy ads warm up but deliver no pitch

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Marketer: Prodigy Communication Corp.
Agency: TBWA/Chiat/Day, New York
Rating: One star

Let's make an advertising campaign!

Let's be witty!

Let's use celebrities!

Let's use wordplay!

Let's put even more zing into our show reel!

Let's be our trademark, offbeat, unexpected selves!

Yes, yes, yes! Let's have some fun! We are TBWA/Chiat/Day! We are icons! We are geniuses! We are gods! We are awash in our own press clippings! We have advertisers in our thrall! We can do what we wish, therefore we do!

So, by all means, let's craft a funny, funny campaign that never bothers to mention what our client sells! We can, we can, we can . . . so we do!

There is, of course, no way to be certain such musings actually took place in the creation of Prodigy Communication Corp.'s new campaign, but don't bet against it. There is certainly no rational explanation why these two charming commercials--one with Aretha Franklin, the other with Larry Bird--would so brazenly disregard the basic tenets of communication.

Such as making clear to the listener why you are presuming to speak.

The first spot is set in a hospital nursing station. A nurse gets on the p.a. looking for one of the staff:

"Paging Dr. Garetti. Paging Dr. Garetti." No response. So she tries again.

"Doc-tor Garetti. Paging Doc-tor Garetti." Now she's ticked. But wait. On the bottom of the screen, a super: "everyone has a potential," it says.

Meantime, the nurse picks up the mike and soulfully belts out, in song, "Dr. Garetti. DOCTOR GARETTTIIIIII," with a "do dih dih dah da" scat flourish.

Oh, the nurse . . . it's Aretha. And now the onscreen type says, "Have you reached yours?"

Then the voice-over: "Are you a prodigy?" Then the end frame, and the Prodigy Internet logo, with an 800-number and a URL.

The second spot is set in a Home Depot, where the lanky clerk in the paint department is Larry Bird. Wiping down the counter, he spies a distant waste can and shoots the wad of crumpled rag for a three pointer--all to the same onscreen-type treatment.

See? They're prodigies! And the brand is called Prodigy, which, for the uninitiated, is an Internet service provider. It used to be a proprietary online service, the unique joint venture of Sears, IBM and CBS. But the three erstwhile corporate dinosaurs were too involved trying to stave off extinction to notice they had the world by a fiber cable, and Prodigy was a bit slow to identify an intriguing little business opportunity called the Internet.

America Online saw it and acted. Prodigy slowly wasted away.

But now, in its vastly diminished form, it is being restaged as a pure ISP. Sign on, hook up, pay up. Which is fine, we suppose. But there is nothing in this advertising to explain that. For those who have heard of Prodigy, and know its pathetic history, there is not a word that tries to redress past sins. For the Webwise who might be interested in an Internet hook-up other than AOL--let's say as an act of defiance--there is not a word of encouragement, much less persuasion.

And for newbies, incredibly, there is not one single word identifying Prodigy as a path to the Net.

Yes, we get that Aretha and Larry are locked in crummy jobs with their extraordinary potential just straining to be unleashed. And we get that the advertiser is promising to unharness our inner virtuosos, but for crying out loud, how?

With what, for God's sake? With what?

Copyright November 1999, Crain Communications Inc. ;

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