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TETLEY SINKS FROM MORONIC TO BOGUS

By Published on .

So the commercial opens and, in very cheesy animation, there's a skinny young character and a squat older character wearing what look like smocks and woolen hair nets sorting tea leaves on a conveyor.

What exactly are we looking at? The Keebler elves with a caffeine habit? "Of Mice & Men" with a cartoon Lenny and a cartoon George? Or maybe it's an animated documentary: "The Global Economy Strikes the Smurfs: Piecework in the Enchanted Forest."

No, it's just a Tetley ad, reviving a very old selling proposition in an equally dated fashion.

"Tiny, tiny .*.*. Tetley!" says the skinny one, letting the small, supposedly more flavorful leaves pass, and culling the large ones. "Not tiny, not Tetley." Then the older one chimes in:

"We Tetley tea folk wouldn't choose anything but tiny little tea leaves. They're our secret source of Tetley's pure tea taste."

Lenny: "Tiny, tiny. Oh, my word!"

George: "We are a tiny little obsessive, but your Tetley will taste the purer for it."

Then comes the jingle ("Pure taste is tiny little tea leaves in Tetley teas") and then the voiced-over slogan: "Tiny Tetley leaves. Pure Tetley taste."

Tiny little claim. Pure Tetley drivel.

Not that the datedness of the style harms this commercial. There's actually something charmingly primitive about the animation. Compared with Pixar and "Roger Rabbit"-like dimension and detail, there's a certain quaintness to these flat, unsophisticated cartoon images. And while the notion of leaf-auditing garden gnomes is categorically insipid, it, too, is kind of refreshing.

So awash are we in clever and excruciatingly hip advertising, it's hard not to notice a campaign so unafraid to be truly, gigantically, crashingly moronic. Tiny, tiny Tetley. Not tiny, not Tetley? The Tea Folk reach for the lowest common denominator and still come away empty-handed, because they are crafted for the intellectual level of a mollusk. This ad makes "Ring around the collar" look like Proust.

But the problem isn't the transcendent stupidity. What's offensive is the application of the Unique Selling Proposition in its sleaziest form: the promulgation of a bogus point of distinction. Every tea bagger-Tetley, Lipton, Red Rose, whoever-uses the same size leaves.

Not only is the tiny-leaf claim (like all advertising pre-emption) itself disingenuous, the fact is that small leaves are favored not for their flavor or purity but for ease of processing. In other words: This is an untruthful selling proposition.

USP is wonderful when there is a genuine, relevant point of distinction. But the inflation of some manifest nothing into a dubious something has no place in modern advertising. In the 1950s and `60s, the successes of Rosser Reeves' technique conferred upon USP a sort of pseudoscientific validity, and on a tissue of such contrivances, advertising credibility diminished nearly to the vanishing point, perhaps never to be fully reclaimed.

It's understandable that Tetley, and its agency, the Sawtooth Group, Woodbridge, N.J., would want to mine the equity and nostalgia value of the "tiny leaves" concept, which it used off and on for 30 years, well into the 1980s. At the moment, Tetley is a tiny, tiny factor in the $600 million tea market, with a 7% share five rungs down from Lipton's 39%.

But, oh, my word, you can't just pluck out the big deceptions. You have to cull the tiny ones, too. Advertising will be the purer for it.

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