Prodigy ads warm up but deliver no pitch

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Lucky thing advertising works.

It's a lucky thing that, if the logo is legible, most anything will spark some sort of consumer response. The very existence of national advertising confers a certain aura of substance, so that the biggest determinant of impact -- sadly -- is not creative inspiration or strategic cunning but mere media weight.

Oh, great advertising can still do magic, and especially dreadful ads can still harm your brand. And, yes, the pollution of the airwaves by bad campaign after bad campaign does, like soft-coal-fired electricity, foul the environment and increase the cost of doing business for everybody.

But still, by and large, the difference in effectiveness between good work and terrible work, we believe, is pretty marginal.

Luckily for Prodigy Communications Corp. and TBWA/Chiat/Day, New York.

Mistaking wordplay, humor and celebrity for information, they've produced two undeniably charming commercials that brazenly disregard the basic tenets of communication. Such as making clear to the listener why you are presuming to speak.

The first spot is set in a hospital nursing station. A nurse gets on the P.A. looking for one of the staff:

"Paging Dr. Garetti. Paging Dr. Garetti." No response. So she tries again.

"Doc-tor Garetti. Paging Doc-tor Garetti." Now she's ticked. But wait. On the bottom of the screen, a super: "Everyone has a potential."

Meantime, the nurse picks up the mike and soulfully belts out, in song, "Dr. Garetti. DOCTOR GARETTTIIIIII," with a "do dih dih dah dah" scat flourish.

Oh, the nurse . . . it's Aretha Franklin. And now, the onscreen type says, "Have you reached yours?"

Then simultaneously onscreen and in voice-over: "Are you a prodigy?" Then the endframe, and the Prodigyinternet logo, with an 800-number and a URL.

The second spot is set in a Home Depot repro, where the lunky clerk in the paint department is Larry Bird. Wiping down the counter, he spies a distant waste can and shoots the wad of crumpled rag for a three pointer -- all to the same onscreen-type treatment.

See? They're prodigies! And the brand is called Prodigy, which, for the uninitiated, is an Internet service provider. It used to be a proprietary online service, the unique joint venture of Sears, IBM and CBS. But the three erstwhile corporate dinosaurs were too involved trying to stave off extinction to notice they had the world by a fiber cable, and Prodigy was a bit slow to notice something.

The Internet.

America Online did notice and acted. Prodigy slowly wasted away.

But now, in its vastly diminished form, it is being restaged as a pure ISP. Sign-on, hook up, pay up. Which is fine, we suppose. But there is nothing in this advertising to explain that. For those who have heard of Prodigy, and know its pathetic history, not a word here tries to address, much less redress, past sins. For the Web-wise who might be interested in an Internet connection other than AOL -- let's say as an act of defiance -- there is not a word of encouragement, much less persuasion.

And for newbies, incredibly, there is not one single word identifying Prodigy as a path to the Net.

Yes, we get that Aretha and Larry are locked in crummy jobs with their extraordinary potential just straining to be unleashed. And we get that the advertiser is promising (falsely) to unharness our inner virtuosos, but for crying out loud, how?

And with what, for God's sake? With what?

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