BOB GARFIELD'S AD REVIEW: SPRITE RAPS 'IMAGE,' WHILE EMBRACING IT

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Oh, no. Maybe Andre Agassi was right.

You may recall seeing him, beginning way back when he had enough hair to tie up in a do-rag, whacking tennis balls and snapping pictures with a Canon.

"Image is everything," he declared, and presumably he knew whereof he spoke, having become a Famously Iconoclastic Personality long before he actually began to win big tournaments.

But Agassi's pronouncement was dispiriting on the face of it. We like to think, after all, that image is superficial, that substance ultimately trumps artifice, that the sizzle is subordinated by the steak.

Alas, just when we let ourselves believe it's what's inside that counts, along comes someone or something to disillusion us. Such as Dennis Rodman. Or the matron formerly known as Madonna.

Or Sprite.

Yes, Sprite, the lemon-lime soft drink that declares, no less emphatically, that "Image is nothing. Thirst is everything. Obey your thirst." For the past three years, commercials from Lowe & Partners/SMS, New York, have systematically lampooned the phony quality of other soft-drink advertising. Now a new pool of spots is taking on other ad categories, as well. One spoofs Visa's overheated retail travelogues, another Cheer's quirky product demos. One makes fun of the entire genre of athlete endorsements and another trashes the trend of using animals in commercials.

And, excepting the animal one, which shows revolting things being eaten in revolting ways, they're all pretty amusing. The funniest, which purports to promote the fictitious "Jooky" cola, is one of those beach-party deals, where entirely-too-beautiful young people are having entirely too much fun. Finally it pulls back, where two dull-witted teens are watching the spot on the tube. But when they crack open their Jookys, no party breaks out.

"Oh, man," one moans. "Mine's busted."

Then the voice-over: "Trust your taste buds, not commercials."

Because, duh, commercials lie.

Such is the undergirding principle of so much anti-advertising. Marketers as varied as Nike, Energizer and Miller Lite use ads to satirize ads, betting that media-wise young target audiences will credit the advertiser for being hip enough to understand that the audience understands that advertising is just a lot of smoke and mirrors obscuring the self-serving nature of the enterprise. So, the thinking goes, let's expose everybody else and stand alone in straightforward communication.

But if image is nothing and thirst is everything, why is not one of the ads here about thirst? Why are none of the ads about taste? Why are none of the ads about anything intrinsic to Sprite? Why does the famous-athlete sendup use Grant Hill, a famous athlete? Answer: As far as this advertising is concerned, image is not nothing. Image is everything.

So, yes, this is unusually candid advertising-in the sense that it's precisely the sort of lie it warns about.

There's more irony than harm in this brand of disingenuousness. For one thing, there's nothing wrong with cultivating brand image to begin with; you don't see Nike talking much about shoe engineering. And since Coca-Cola Co. ditched the Jooky-esque feel-good approach, Sprite has been gangbusters. But it truly is dispiriting that the supposedly media-wise audience can be suckered by such transparent manipulation.

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