RABBIT STUMBLES BACK TO ITS AD ROOTS

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Exactly seven years ago, the Ad Review staff's world changed before our eyes. We had just seen three TV spots-for Nasatene spray, Tres Cafe coffee and Chateau Marmoset wine-and each time we had smirked to ourselves about the advertiser's slavish, hackneyed devotion to form.

How right we were. And how wrong, for each time we also were astonished and thrilled to realize we'd been fooled. Three times in a minute, for crying out loud, we'd been gulled, bamboozled and utterly taken in by a little, pink bunny.

The Energizer campaign had begun, and we loved it. We were like kids at a magic show, giddy suckers, angry with ourselves for being thrice deceived and also delighted at the miraculous sleight of hand. So we would be many times more, as this landmark campaign kept going, going and going.

Alas, inevitably, at various points along the way, we've allowed ourselves to wish it would just go go go away. In the past few years the central joke has been expanded beyond parody. The premises and punch lines have become tortured. And the bunny has become an annoyance.

Once he was a silly rabbit. Now he's more like an ingrown hare.

But there is too much equity here to squander, and too worthy an icon to abandon. And so, called upon to compare the improved Energizer battery to the improved Duracell, the bunny has marched full circle. Three new 15-second spots from TBWA Chiat/Day, Venice, Calif., about the Energizer on-battery tester return to their ad-parody roots.

Or try to. Everything about these spots is maddeningly off-kilter. In the original campaign, the dead-on parodies of other commercial genres had a crystalline purity, perfect faithfulness to the style, mannerisms, cadences and production feel of the advertising they took off on.

Not so here. In each of these three prototypical comparison spots, the purity is corrupted by some stray element, and the impact proportionately compromised.

A spot called "Dentures," for instance, aims to mimic a denture-cleaner spot. But the mimicry is muddied by two things going on at once. A lab-coated narrator's voice is distorted-because, as we are to discover, the false teeth soaking in the glass belong to him. It's a weak joke, but even if it were hilarious it would spoil the illusion, bursting the fragile bubble of parodic faithfulness and evaporating the sales pitch contained therein.

In the spot called "Shampoo"-a split-screen Denorex sendup-the problem is stilted acting and copy. Sure, the real ads are stilted, too. But they are stilted in a different way. Nothing here rings authentic, so the sendup, and the message, are returned to sender.

Furthermore, the split-screen gag was used before, back in 1990, in a takeoff of long-distance commercials. Then the ruse was undetectable until the punch line was sprung. In these spots, the deception is detectable from the get-go-which, therefore, is no deception at all.

The third spot, in which a legal librarian raises her arms to shelve a book and the armpit of her blouse is soaked with sweat, is but 1 second old when it is revealed for the bad knockoff it is. No joy in that. Or impact.

At a good magic show, we pay close attention to every word and movement, and credit the magician.

At a bad magic show, we lose interest and attention immediately, crediting the magician not at all.

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