Toyota needn't blush over ad; tooth jewelry is a fashion fad

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Toyota is spending $8 billion over 10 years to reach out to minorities. And it all started with a postcard. The Japanese carmaker sent out a promotional postcard showing a smiling mouth displaying tooth-jewelry-a gold inset of its RAV4 sport-utility vehicle. The Rev. Jesse Jackson said the ad was demeaning to blacks.

In June, however, The New York Times, the national arbiter of what's politically correct, ran a story on the rise of tooth jewelry-or "fronts," as they're called-as a fashion trend among blacks, Hispanics, whites, "hip-hop millionaires to average professionals in corporate America."

"Gold teeth have been around for years, whether as dental necessity or totems of street cool," the Times said. "But these days they are resurfacing as a fashion statement of younger generations, transformed into a removable accessory no different from earrings or sunglasses."

The question isn't why Rev. Jackson takes offense (we all know his agenda and methods) but why Toyota capitulated so completely over a fashion image of young blacks that young blacks themselves cultivate?

To make the alleged offense appear more serious, the promotional postcard mailing was upgraded to a series of TV commercials in the Times story. Rev. Jackson criticized the ad as "a stereotypical depiction of inner-city blacks," as the Times put it, and he added, "the only thing missing is the watermelon."

Toyota had two strikes against it from the beginning. First and foremost, it's a foreign company and the last thing its management wants is to offend any segment of the local population. Second, the postcard was created by white-run, French-owned Saatchi & Saatchi, which, by the way, is Rev. Jackson's latest boycott target.

So here we have a Japanese car company and a French ad agency, both managed in the U.S. by a bunch of white guys. Is it any surprise they were sitting ducks for Rev. Jackson's accusations that the postcards, now morphed into TV commercials, were offensive to black people?

Rev. Jackson said Toyota was "embarrassed" by the ad and that the company was going to hire black and Hispanic-owned ad agencies. That would be a good move, even under duress, because the first thing they'd do is tell Toyota it has nothing to be embarrassed about.

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Maybe advertisers are trying too hard to make ads memorable.

I submit the ideal ad is one consumers don't remember. What they should remember is the information it contains. What's more, they should have the impression they gleaned the information from a magazine or newspaper article (so the selling message would be untainted by any aura of hucksterism).

Advertisers now strive mightily to get consumers to recall their ads-at least the production values and gags if not the product benefits they impart. Mostly, however, there are precious few product benefits; more time is spent showing how the product fits into consumers' active lifestyles.

A New York Times article on Steven Spielberg's film "A.I." got me thinking that advertisers are on the wrong track. Mr. Spielberg, the article stated, was interviewed while eating a pair of Subway turkey sandwiches. The famous director, who knows a thing or two about advertising, said he had read an article about people who lost weight on a diet of Subway sandwiches. "I thought if I ate them at just one meal a day, I'd lose the last four pounds that I need to get rid of," Mr. Spielberg confided to the Times.

If you're thinking what I'm thinking, it's obvious he didn't read about the Subway diet plan in any article. He saw the TV commercial where a former fat guy named Jared lost 235 pounds on a regimen of Subway sandwiches. What we have in play here is that even advertising-savvy people, such as Mr. Spielberg, convince themselves they acquire information from credible, objective sources-and so aren't suckers enough to be duped by advertising.

The name of the game is to include enough info to allow consumers to make this bridge. And, oh, by the way, you're out of luck if the product data gets in the way of your agency's creativity.

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