Table this ad: Idea is right, but Denny's is wrong client

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Show me Negroes! Dammit, don't forget the Negroes!"

Look, we can't really be sure that anyone at Denny's -- the restaurant chain with the well-deserved case of White Guilt -- decreed that its new image campaign be filled with African-Americans. But let's just say, in looking at the new ad, we were amused.

Ever since it was caught defending itself on meticulously documented charges of institutional racism, Denny's has taken it upon itself to be the Official Short-Order Joint of Multiculturalism. Its corporate mission statement, and its advertising, have substantially dedicated themselves less to butter-and-syrup-drenched waffles than to racial understanding. Which is very nice, and laudable. But it's also, as overcompensation often is, somewhere between entertaining and embarrassing to witness.

When do the first black faces show up in the first Denny's effort from WestWayne, Tampa, Fla? Why, in the very first instant, of course. A little girl and her big brother share some giggly play at the kitchen table. And it's very sweet and nice.

Thus begins Stage Two. In the past two years, Denny's has -- with the zeal of the converted -- amply demonstrated that it has no tolerance for intolerance.

Now comes the rest of the reinvention. Turns out, Denny's is not a chain of 1,800 too-brightly lit diners with lots of saturated fat and Formica.

It is home.

In fact, it's not just home; it's a particular place at home. In fact, it's a particular piece of furniture.

"It's heard laughter, tears, secrets," says the gentle, female voice-over, atop a montage of home-movie images and snapshots from the '50s and '60s.

"It knows the sound of concern, of joy and of regret. It's heard about movies, books, school and boyfriends -- and, at times, simply heard nothing at all." At this stage, you begin to understand that all of these warm and precious moments are occurring in one place: the kitchen. The birthday parties, the family meals, the hugs, the arguments -- everything is happening at family life's ground zero.

"If only there were a place," the voice-over proposes, "that made you feel the way you did at your kitchen table." Whereupon, onscreen type makes the actual selling claim: "Maybe there is." What follows is the Denny's logo.

Yes, the home of "$1.99! Are you outta your mind?" is now claiming to be America's Kitchen Table. Which is, shall we say, a stretch. The all-night Rainbow Coalition we're prepared to buy, but the kitchen table . . . we don't think so. This is a case of a brilliant idea, magnificently wrought by talented people, being applied to the wrong client altogether.

Kraft Foods? Yes. Betty Crocker? Absolutely. Wonder Bread? Why not? They all have a legitimate claim to the extremely potent emotion invested in a few square feet of precious floor space two strides from the fridge.

Denny's does not. The association simply doesn't scan. It's a disconnect. In some ways, Denny's is the anti-Kitchen Table. When families gather there, it is most often for an occasion, or a rest stop, but certainly not for the routine of day-to-day life. Not white day-to-day life, not black day-to-day life. Not anyone's day-to-day life, except for the caffeine-starved rat racers who show up every morning for a hot mug of java and an egg or six.

Just to reiterate, the notion of the ad is quite ingenious. We've seen nothing like it since 1993, when American Standard (and agency Carmichael Lynch, Minneapolis) spoke about bathtub hardware by reminding you, "It's seen you naked. It's heard you sing." Turning an inanimate object into a witness of your most intimate moments is undeniably clever. In the WestWayne example, the possibilities may have seemed even greater, so laden with emotion is the family-life tableau.

But that doesn't change the fact that Denny's does not intrinsically qualify for the honor. In that regard, the effort is much like the chain's corporate quest to be a facilitator of racial harmony. The sentiment is beautiful, but wishing doesn't make it so.

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