AT&T injects emotion into quiet slices of life

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Marketer: AT&T Corp.

Advertising Agency: Y&R Advertising, New York

Ad Review rating: Three and one-half stars

Here's to not pushing the envelope. Here's to breaking no rules. Here's to linear, conventional narrative. Here's to old-fashion, riveting storytelling. Here--once again, because once was not enough--is to the AT&T campaign from Y&R Advertising, New York, directed principally by James Gartner.

As we near the end of a year that saw one "groundbreaking" campaign after another crash and burn, it is the quintessential example of advertising that relies not on shock, or postmodern absurdity, or anti-advertising attitude, but rather on rich, restrained expressions of emotion and vivid narrative detail.

In "Teen Date," for example, the shot of actress Larisa Oleynik painting her toenails while waiting for incoming e-mail is charming and memorable. But so is the earlier instant when she opens the master bedroom door to wish her father good night. Because he was listening for clues to his daughter's dating experience, Dad (Jon Bumstead) is caught flatfooted right at the threshold. His startled look and sheepish smile are as priceless as her giddy obliviousness. The touching, believable moment speaks volumes about his state of mind, and hers--all in a half-second.

The same happens in "Beaches." Four-year-old Emma Gordon establishes the emotional tension by paralyzing her overburdened-executive mother (Jan McGuire) with the question, "Mom, when can I be a client?"

That dagger through every working parent's heart might seem just too pat if the other action weren't thick with credible detail: the too-loud cartoon on television, the clutter, the cold cereal all over the kitchen counter, the mom coming through the swinging door while applying lipstick as she rushes to get out of the house.

And there's another classically Gartner moment. The mom has just insisted on "no TV all day," and is answering the door while simultaneously struggling to put her shoe on. "Our babysitter watches TV all day," one of the kids argues--just as the door opens to reveal the babysitter (Jessica Gaynes), with her own bewildered look and wan, guilty smile.

By the time crushing guilt and the freedom of AT&T technology persuade Mom to conduct business at the beach via cell phone, verisimilitude has long since been established. So the marvelous, albeit slightly exaggerated, sequence of the kids tearing the house apart for the beach togs rings delightfully true.

And then there is the spot "College Freshman," a wafer-thin slice after slice of poignant, genuine life.

It starts with the casting: Alicia Brandt, as the mom delivering her daughter to school and Morgan Nagler as the sweet but marvelously un-Hollywood-gorgeous kid. Then, it seems, every nuance of dialogue and every facial expression spills over with meaning. When they count 1-2-3 before getting out of the car, the daughter counts ultra-quickly. When they head through the dorm hallway, and a boy passes wearing nothing but a towel, Mom spins and scowls in confusion.

Moments later, spying her daughter's mirror reflection--and wistfully flashing back 13 years to a little girl playing with lipstick--Mom is jolted out of her reverie by her 18-year-old bouncing onto the flimsy bed. It's another half-second shot: Mom's eyes rolling up in her head, whimsically, from the jostling.

She just wants to hug her baby and cry, but is relentlessly cheerful for her daughter's sake. The acting and directorial restraint convey otherwise inexpressible human emotion.

It is neither new nor shocking. It is merely magnificent.

Copyright November 1998, Crain Communications Inc.

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