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Rating 3 1/2 stars COFFEEHOUSE HITS GROUND ZERO WITH THREE MILE ISLAND IMAGERY

Published on .

This is about an Atlanta coffeehouse ad, but, frankly, recent events make it difficult to focus on something so trivial as advertising criticism. The exercise seems to pale in the wake of that bizarre two-man odyssey, courtesy of network TV, that America watched with a morbid combina- tion of horror and delight.

And Mujibur and Sirajul's coast-to-coast travelogue for David Letterman is only half over.

Oh, yeah, there was also that O.J. thing, which, thanks to saturation coverage, tele-imprinted itself on the national psyche in a way not seen since the Persian Gulf War.

Indeed, in terms of the urgency ABC, CBS, NBC and CNN accorded Simpson's tamed Bronco ride, Los Angeles' most grotesque celebrity crime since the Menendez mistrial was treated exactly like the Gulf war (the only differences being that this one involved more helicopters and Saddam had a better alibi).

These searing TV images come along periodically, from Lee Harvey Oswald doubled over in gunshot agony to Neil Armstrong on the lunar module ladder to Rodney King and the fraternal disorder of police. The shot of the lonesome white Bronco traveling along a Los Angeles freeway and a dozen cop cars timidly hanging back is merely the latest in which a single picture comes to represent a prolonged, complicated and often terrifying series of events.

Another such defining image would be the naked Vietnamese girl running from her village with napalm burns. And another would be the cooling towers at Three Mile Island.

Because you can't photograph radiation, much less the threat of it being released, back in 1979 those giant concrete hyperbolas loomed ominously over Pennsylvania's Susquehanna Valley as if they themselves spewed something horrific and deadly that endangered millions. The only thing they spewed, of course, was water vapor, utterly non-radioactive water vapor, since the towers themselves had no connection to the damaged reactor nearby. But it didn't matter then and it doesn't matter now.

To virtually everyone who sees them, those concave concrete castles are visual synonyms for nuclear nightmare.

Which is why the print ad for Atlanta's Caffeinds coffeehouse, from Henderson Advertising, Atlanta, is so wonderful.

The headline is a simple question: "Have you tried our new triple espresso?" And the payoff is at its left: one of the TMI cooling towers, retouched to appear as if it has a handle.

The retouching is seamless, perhaps thanks to the same digital wizardry Time shamefully employed on its darkened cover mug shot of O.J.

But this TMI photo manipulation isn't an issue of breached ethics. Rather, it is the essence of communication. A giant, atomic coffee mug! Simple. Witty. Trenchant. Inspired.

The notion of selling coffee for its pharmacological benefits may be daring in this day and age, but for an establishment billing itself as "The place for coffee feinds," [sic] the notion of nuclear java is unarguably on strategy, and certainly more telling than, say, for example, "mountain grown."

Art director Brian Born and copywriter Rich Paschall claim to have drawn inspiration from Caffeinds high-test product itself. If that is true, they'd be crazy to switch to decaf. Meantime, it's probable that someday the O.J.-on-the-freeway picture will also find its way into edgy advertising-although for whom we couldn't begin to guess.

Probably not Hertz.

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