The Work: Fear of funny abating

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In a spot for Computer Associates titled "Amnesia," a busy executive's harried assistant on his way to a meeting knocks himself out by walking into an open file cabinet drawer. Seems he had all the important info the boss needed for the meeting in his head. Trouble ensues.

It's a funny spot, and quite remarkable in the way that consumers have embraced it, said Ann Hayden, executive creative director at the agency that created it, WPP Group's Y&R Advertising, New York. "I wouldn't have thought six months ago that slapstick would play so well," said Ms. Hayden, "but I think people really want to laugh right now."

And they are laughing, at least at TV commercials. According to a number of top creative directors asked to appraise the state of advertising creative at the six-month anniversary of the terror attacks, comedy came back faster than initially imagined.

"The people who are successful at doing comedy still are," said Chuck McBride, North American creative director at Omnicom Group's TBWA/Chiat/Day. "We're just not seeing as much of the raw stuff." Mr. McBride, who was interviewed about where creative trends might go the day after the attack, said then that creatives would have to approach the issue of comedy gingerly.

Yet the work seen on Super Bowl XXXVI in February suggested to many that the industry had turned the corner emotionally and was ready to embrace comic work again, albeit with less of an edge. Solid examples of slapstick humor seen on the broadcast include Bud Light spots from Omnicom's DDB, Worldwide, Chicago, in which a husband slides across satin sheets in his bedroom and flies out the window, and another featuring Cedric the Entertainer, in which a nervous guy gets clobbered in a bar by an offended beauty he approaches.

Ted Sann, vice chairman-chief creative officer of Omnicom's BBDO North America, New York, said the restraint of work done immediately after the attack reflected the times. "It wasn't a conscious reaction, it was an emotional one.

"But it's human nature to recover, to get back the full range of emotions, and lightheartedness and humor is a part of that," Mr. Sann continued. "So it came back in an organic way." BBDO, New York, was one of the first agencies to tap into comedy in a pro bono campaign produced for the New York City Mayor's Office (AA, Nov. 26) that showed celebrities enjoying their own New York Miracle.


Tracy Wong, chairman-creative director of WongDoody, Seattle, predicted immediately after the attacks last September that they would not have a lasting impact on the kinds of ads most consumers see, except perhaps that agencies would tone down the extreme comedy that had become increasingly popular over the past several years. Now, said Mr. Wong, "The shock has subsided enough that creative people aren't afraid of pulling the trigger like they might have been a few months ago."

One trend predicted in the days and weeks right after the attack apparently didn't materialize, and that was a move toward more emotional work that celebrated human relationships. "I thought we would see a ton of ads that addressed issues of life significance," said Ms. Hayden.

In fact, some advertisers have tweaked emotionalism in their advertising messages. Y&R broke a spot for Cadbury Schweppes' 7-Up earlier this year that parodies Coca-Cola Co.'s famous "Hilltop" commercial from the `70s. In 7-Up's version, titled "Singers," the happy, smiling hilltop soda-sippers degenerate into a pushing, shoving mob.

One thing Ms. Hayden and others have noted is the new role of the everyday hero-what she calls the "really useful person," be it a construction worker or schoolteacher. Advertising is beginning to focus on those who are "a little more tangible," she added, and believes this trend will result in less glitz and glamour. "The beautiful people will have to come down a rung or two."

As for depictions of patriotism in ads, such as those seen in ads for General Motors Corp., Miller Brewing Co. and others, several creatives believe such work no longer seems appropriate. "There was an upsurge of it for everyone," said Mr. Sann, "but it's not a trend. You can't turn patriotism into an advertising notion. It's like religion-it's between one and oneself."

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