Goodby's Charming Ad Is Ad Age's Best for 2000

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NEW YORK ( -- Oh, this is nice.

The charming, hilarious commercial, voted Ad Age Best for the year 2000, is not only pointed and memorable and a dramatic rendering of the supposed

Angered by diluted cable modem service, a grandmother bursts a neighbor's balloon.
product benefit, it is right on the verge of being true.

Yes, when Omnicom Group's Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, San Francisco, created "Neighborhood" -- where neighbors squabble bitterly over who's hogging the cable-modem bandwidth -- it was based on a more-or-less real technical phenomenon.

Not "real" in the sense of depicting practical reality, exactly. Cable modems are lightning quick no matter how many neighborhood subscribers share the co-ax. The SBC Communications' Pacific Bell commercial is real mainly in the sense of not technically being a complete lie.

"More theoretically than in reality," said Paul Venables, associate partner at Goodby and Pac Bell creative team head who this month broke away to form Venables, Bell & Partners, San Francisco.

"The more people in your neighborhood that get on [cable] slow it down a little bit because they're sharing the bandwidth. But there's probably no neighborhood in America where cable modem use is so dense that it would make a difference right now."

Hmm. This is information the Best Awards jury might have appreciated before voting. But what's done is done, so let's appreciate the spot for what it is, shall we? And what it is is delightful. Directed by Chris Smith, the auteur of the charming documentary American Movie, "Neighborhood" shows what happens when human beings, forced to share resources, turn on one another.

Acting downright un-neighborly
The spot is narrated by a resident of Laurel Lane, who says that everything on his street was fine until "everyone started sharing the same cable line for the Internet. That's when things online got slower and people started acting, well, downright un-neighborly."

Then we see a woman at her computer, frustrated by a slow download, pounding her desk. Then a little girl under the same circumstances screaming at her computer: "Come on!"

Problem established. Now to document the reaction: An elderly woman, gardening, sees a balloon float over from next door. She punctures it with her rake. The paperboy tosses a newspaper toward a house. A second later, it comes flying back so hard it knocks him off his bike. Next we see two kids in a shouting match with an adult homeowner. The words "Web Hog" are spray-painted on his garage door.

"You're a Web hog!" the kids shout.

"No," the guy hollers back, "you're a Web hog!"

An ice cream truck slowly drives down the street. It has been vandalized. "Log off," the graffito says. We see a guy trimming his hedge and then, with the hedge trimmer, attacking his neighbor's flower bed. Then another neighbor cuts a cable line into a house. Inside, the narrator is at his computer and watches incredulously as his screen goes black.

And so on, documenting one neighborhood atrocity after another as Laurel Lane becomes e-Yugoslavia. Finally, via title card, the payoff:

"Don't share a cable line. Get Pacific Bell DSL. Always fast. Never shared."

Seldom has a commercial better framed a supposed problem and a clear-cut solution while simultaneously turning a widely loathed institution into a protagonist. The race for high-speed Internet service right now is between cable and fiber DSL data lines from Pac Bell and its like around the country. Now, there are two sympathetic combatants: the cable company vs. the phone company. But it was easy enough for Mr. Venables, because one of them was his client. Suddenly, the phone company was a blessed provider, and co-axial cable was the root of all evil.

'Monolithic beast'
"We're dealing with a public utility, a monolithic beast," he said. "And we take a small point and make a human story around it. We were kind of planting a seed of doubt.

"I think it's kind of deep. It's smart. And it worked like hell. I'm real proud of it."

The hyperbole doesn't bother him, because the neighborhood depicted is clearly an exaggeration -- based on a tiny, demonstrable fact taken to absurd lengths in the name of communicating the concept. Sure enough, the concept was communicated.

Ads worked too well
"The orders they got just overloaded [Pac Bell's] ability to fill them," Mr. Venables said. "It was really, really effective."

He speaks in the past tense because, in the end, the campaign was ultimately discontinued -- not because it stopped working, but because it went from being almost true to completely untrue.

"By the end of the campaign running its course," he said, "Pac Bell itself was forced to install a few hubs."

In other words, neighbors had to share DSL lines.

Copyright May 2001, Crain Communications Inc.

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