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What is happening to the fine art of advertising criticism these days?

Do critics think consumers are completely brain dead, unable to judge for themselves whether a claim is beneficial to them? Do they think that the more obscure an ad is, the more creative it must be?

I'm disappointed, first and foremost, in the perspicacity of our own Bob Garfield. I have been one of Bob's biggest supporters, but he tries my considerable patience when he launches an uninformed attack on the new Tetley tea commercials.

Bob blasts Tetley for making a big deal out of the fact that the company uses "tiny little leaves" in its tea bags. Says Bob: "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 the ease of processing. In other words: This is an untruthful selling proposition."

I am not a tea drinker, so I called my daughter, Cindi, who is. Cindi said she thinks the commercial is "silly" because it doesn't explore the benefit of the little leaves. And, she wonders, does Tetley use little whole leaves or bigger ground-up leaves? Tetley "never made clear why tiny leaves yield more flavor," Cindi told me.

Actually, Tetley never said the tiny leaves make its tea more flavorful, only purer. "We Tetley tea folk wouldn't choose anything but tiny little leaves. They're our secret source of Tetley's pure tea taste." Either way-flavor or purity-the Tetley claim is pretty hard to swallow, especially for avid tea drinkers.

Bob's larger point, however, is that all pre-emptive claims are misleading. His reasoning is that such a claim attempts to assert an advertiser is the only one in the field to have a particular attribute when in fact they all have it-like tiny tea leaves in their tea bags.

Au contraire, Bobby boy, an advertiser has a perfect right to seize on a product feature that nobody else realizes is a big advantage. I recall that the maker of Puffed Wheat and Puffed Rice cereal used the slogan "Shot from guns" when everybody else used the same equipment to puff up their cereals. Around the turn of the century, Schlitz said its beer bottles were "sterilized with live steam" because the legendary ad agency man Claude Hopkins noticed they were when he went through the Schlitz bottling plant; every other brewer did the same but he was the first to say so. Later, the simple, classic "It's toasted" slogan for Lucky Strike boosted the cigarettes with Americans, even though the process was common to all tobacco companies.

Who has done a better job of pre-emption than President Clinton? He pre-empted the entire Republican platform during the election, thus making everything the Republicans said sound radical and extreme. Was that deceptive? No, but it was damn smart politics, to give the devil his due.

Why should a politician or a product refrain from making a claim just because his competitors weren't smart enough to grab it first? I say Bob Garfield is being downright un-American in his cockamamie notion that you shouldn't exploit one of your strengths just because the other guy can lift the same weight.

But Bob isn't the only critic going down the road not taken. USA Today asked 23 creative people for their best and worst picks, and they came up with that unfathomable Nissan commercial as the best of the year. Never mind that you don't know what's being advertised or what that strange man is doing or what Ken and Barbie have to do with buying a Nissan.

Life's a journey. Take a hike, Bob and USA Today ad experts.

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