Advertiser: Southwestern Bell
Agency: D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles, New York
Ad Review rating: 2 stars
As the spot opens, Rip van Winkle, awakening from his Hudson Valley slumber, wanders toward distant, modern Manhattan. Tattered and long-bearded, dazed and confused, he finds himself in midtown, where he is nearly run down by an 18-wheeler. He's so ragged and disheveled, people take him for a homeless man, and when he takes off his hat they stuff money inside. Good, because he's walking around in dryrotted boots, so he heads for a shoe store. Then, in the next shot, he ambles down the street sucking a Slurpee, shod hilariously in motley hightops with flashing lights in the heels.
Passing an electronics store window, he sees a commercial playing on six TVs: "Hey, sleepyhead, need a wake-up call?" the announcer blares. "Get CallNotes voice mail. Go to a telephone and order now."
Rip's an obedient soul, so he finds a public phone and asks a nearby newsstand operator, "Excuse me. Is this a telephone?"
The old vendor looks at him in disbelief. "Dad?" he ventures.
(Yes, if you look carefully, a faded sign reads, "Rip Jr.'s Newsstand.") And then, to end the spot, a voice-over chimes in: "That's right, wake-up calls! Get the message?"
Huh? Get the message? Frankly, no.
Or, at least, not the first four times I saw this commercial. Evidently what is being sold here is a voice mail product that boasts among its features wake-up call service. So this is actually a problem-resolution ad, like the Ramada Inn spot from a decade ago, which hauntingly portrayed a businessman who oversleeps because the desk clerk at the dinky motel never wakes him. In this case, however, D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles, New York, chose not verite but legend. Who better to dramatize the benefits of this service than American literature's most famous oversleeper?
It's a very ingenious idea, and in many ways it's realized in a most agreeable way. The opening shot of modern Manhattan looming over the ancient forest is perfect. The notion of Rip accidentally panhandling and going on a shopping spree is inspired. And the incongruity of seeing him decked out in his ghetto-chic basketball shoes is just wonderful. The actor is very good, the wardrobe clever, the pacing terrific.
And, in the end, the whole thing falls completely apart.
What does the long-lost son have to do with anything? It's an extraneous plot element that adds nothing either to the story as entertainment, or to the story as a demonstration of liberating communications technology. The joke just hangs there, while the rest of the Rip van Winkle contrivance unravels because almost nothing in the vignette gets to the wake-up feature itself.
For us to get the point--i.e., a CallNotes wake-up would have saved Rip from a lot of anxiety--it turns out we had to pay close attention to the blathering announcer on the electronics store TVs. But he goes by awfully fast, and sounds like he's spewing generic announcer talk, not Southwestern Bell's actual sales pitch. Forgetting for a moment that an unexpected family reunion doesn't seem like much of a problem, this spot is so caught up in its ingenuity that it utterly obscures the resolution.
And a second spot, an elaborate Monty Pythonish flight of fancy about carrier pigeons and "critical message forwarding," is equally unclear.
So much for communications. Rip may be sleepy, but the message still rings hollow.
Copyright April 1997, Crain Communications Inc.