Qwest's qualms sink laudable ad campaign

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Advertiser: Qwest
Agency: Focus, Dallas
Ad Review rating: 3 Stars

Qwest, the longline wholesaler-turned-retailer, has a network of fiber optics arrayed like a vast central nervous system. The system sure is nervous.

Last week, after having the taste of its new ad campaign questioned in The Wall Street Journal, Qwest killed the ads before they ever reached the air. Bad move.

The idea, from Focus, Dallas, was to confront consumer resentment of high long-distance tolls and high-handed long-distance marketing tactics, presenting Qwest as a sympathetic alternative. The premise: a guy on a ledge, threatening to leap to his death.

Screen 1 from the spot

Screen 2 from the spot

Screen 3 from the spot

Screen 4 from the spot

Jumper: "Don't try to stop me. I'm gonna jump."

Cop: [On a bullhorn below, trying to calm him] "What's your name, son?"

Jumper: "Bob."

Cop: [Gently] "What do you do, Bob?"

Jumper: "I work for a big long-distance company."

Cop: "Then jump!"

Little girl: "You heard him!"

Blue-collar bystander: "Jump!"

Voice-over: "Qwest knows big long-distance companies haven't won many friends, but we're gonna change all of that, because we're going to guarantee you the lowest rate plan of the big three, forever. Just call us."

A second spot revisits Bob in the hospital, injured but alive. There a kindly visiting priest, upon learning of Bob's employment, begins to pummel him anew. ("You dirty, rotten, lousy. . . .")

OK, it's dark. But it's also funny--and far too outrageous to actually outrage. Qwest should have stayed with the campaign.

This may seem like a peculiar stance for the AdReview staff, considering how often we've advised ads be yanked on taste grounds. Those columns invariably result in "Hey, lighten up!" mail from the teeming morons who cannot distinguish between a harmless gag offensive only to a hypersensitive few and a joke so vulgar, so cruel or so blunt as to offend large numbers of viewers.

In all humor, you have to know your audience. Not just your target audience, your total audience--which for broadcast advertisers means, in the name of common courtesy, erring on the side of caution. But it doesn't mean muzzling yourself altogether.

The Rallys fast-food chain was correct to pull its incredibly raunchy introductory spot for its Big Buford burger, which traded on a string of puerile double-entendres about penis size. And Reebok was right in immediately yanking its spot about a bungee jumper whose loose-fitting non-Reebok Pump sneaks were tugged off, and the bungee lifeline with them. The verite footage was simply too realistic, the implied violent conclusion too disturbing.

On the other hand, in the '80s Roy Rogers ran a charming back-to-school spot that poked gentle, nostalgic fun at the stereotypical cafeteria ladies who ladled up our school-lunch gruel. But Marriott Corp. pulled it, after complaints from a few cafeteria workers. That was craven and stupid.

Taste, of course, is subjective, but determining whether a joke is innocuous as opposed to corrosive is no great trick.

In the Qwest spots, the idea of ordinary people becoming bloodthirsty in the presence of a long-distance-guy is so broad that, for the most part, only people looking to be offended will be. These spots don't make fun of suicide, or besmirch the clergy or justify violence. They merely use hyperbole, a staple of satire, immediately signaling a joke is on the way. So why pull them?

Qwest may have a nervous system, but not much of a spine.

Copyright March 1998, Crain Communications Inc.

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