Spinal Tap drops torch in IBM effort

By Published on .

Advertiser: IBM Corp.
Agency: Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide, New York
Rating: 2 stars

Nothing against "This Is Spinal Tap," one of the funniest movies ever made. And nothing against the Olympic Games, which are full of drama and TV featurettes. Certainly no offense meant to IBM, one of the great industrial corporations of the world.

But the first of Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide's new Olympic-theme TV commercials for IBM, featuring the three main characters of "This Is Spinal Tap," on a scale of 1 to 11, is pretty bloody disappointing.

Your mother was a shepherdess,
A lowly queen of loneliness.
And look at you, you're such a mess.
They creamed the corn
When you were born. Goat boyyyyyy!

OK, the faux heavy-metal song that we hear performed is absurdly funny, in the spirit of Rob Reiner's brilliant parody rockumentary on a fictitious metal band in decline. And it is somewhat amusing, when the dialogue begins, that the lines are repeated as subtitles--as per the style of IBM's "Solutions for a Small Planet" global branding campaign--because the blaring music drowns out the voices.

Furthermore, it's nice to see any Olympic spot that doesn't wallow in maudlin patriotism and the euphoric fiction of the purity of sport. And if there were any doubt that IBM is disavowing its stiff, white-shirt image, there is no longer. Still, the commercials fall short--far short--in humor, in clarity, in relevance.

"You know, Derek," rhythm guitarist Nigel Tufnel (Christopher Guest) says to bassist Derek Smalls (Harry Shearer) in midperformance, "our third comeback tour could become a logistical nightmare. We've got nutritionists, au pairs, personal trainers . . ."

"Not to mention," Derek adds, "the erupting volcano apparatus."

To Tap aficionados, that's a decent line, recalling the movie scene in which a hilariously undersize model of Stonehenge is lowered onstage. But like the significance of the casting itself, it will be lost on most of the viewing world in this, the Official Non Sequitur of the 1996 Olympics.

"Let's bring in IBM," lead guitarist David St. Hubbins (Michael McKean) chimes in. "They help plan, manage and run the Olympics, and have been at it since the '60s." Nigel and Derek look at each other: "So have we."

Whereupon a handful of viewers chuckle, and millions more say, in various languages, "Huh?"

Ah, yes. Solutions for a Small Minority.

Forget for a moment that McKean, Guest and Shearer are gods whose characterizations should not be taken in vain. And forget that ESPN has already used McKean, in character, in its campaign for SportsCenter. One wonders what prompted O&M to film such an elaborate, expensive in-joke.

We can only hope this isn't the sort of "creative planning by whom we'd like to meet" that gets basketball stars cast in battery and compact car commercials. But no explanation looks any better, because if the job is to communicate IBM's astonishing technological capabilities, the message is drowned out in the din, and by the general incongruity of it all.

When O&M won the worldwide IBM account two years ago, the agency's official mandate was to "deliver clear, consistent messages . . . in the most efficient way possible." This has not occurred.

What's emerged has been a most inconsistent and often bewildering variety of messages softening the corporate image, yes, but also--in a half-man, half-goat sort of way--strangely blurring it.

Copyright May 1996 Crain Communications Inc.

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