Behind a firestorm, the tamest of ads

By Published on .

Advertiser: Seagram Americas
Agency: Grey Advertising, New York
Ad Review rating: 2 1/2 stars

Question #1: Who was able to cloud men's minds, slipping in and out of the action without being seen, but still able to generate a weekly evening of radio drama?

Well, duh. It was Lamont Cranston, "The Shadow."

Question #2: What makes millions of people gasp with shock and anger?

Come on. That's a no-brainer, too.

Benetton does, with posters depicting the bloody uniform of a dead Bosnian soldier, for example, to advertise colorful mix-and-match separates. Calvin Klein does, by imitating child pornography. And, just this fall, Haggar does, using as its hilarious point of departure the concept of rushing into a burning house to rescue . . . a pair of pants. Everybody, it seems, is using outrageous images and concepts to get you viewers stoked up.

In the name of attracting attention at any cost, advertisers recently have given us advertrocity after advertrocity: verite funeral with a morbid punch line, involuntary defecation, flies buzzing around a man's insufficiently cleaned back side and, in at least three product categories each, penis jokes and transvestites.

Now then, on to the Lightning Round, where the questions get much harder:

Question #3: What advertiser makes millions of people gasp with shock and anger with a TV spot designed to slip in and slip out without being actually seen?

Oh, so very sorry. Time's up. The advertiser is Seagram Americas. The product is Crown Royal Canadian. And the apparent intention is to have a 30-second spot that nobody could possibly notice on the basis of its content.


Oh, the ad from Grey Advertising, New York, has gotten plenty of attention, all right. When it first ran on a Corpus Christi, Texas, UHF station last spring, it set off a firestorm of protest, because it was the first liquor ad to appear on U.S. broadcast TV in defiance of the spirits industry's own code of voluntary TV abstinence.

But 100% of the uproar was about the existence of the spot. The substance was never an issue. How could it have been? What Grey did was take an innocuous print ad--one dog with a newspaper in his mouth and the legend "Obedience school graduate" next to another dog with a bottle of Crown Royal and the legend "Valedictorian"--and film it. Some ads break through the clutter. This one burrows underneath it. Let Benetton try to provoke and inflame; Seagram is content to cloud men's minds. And so a new genre is born: the intentionally unobtrusive.

Stealth advertising.

Which almost certainly was the idea: Let folks go berserk about the shocking decision to flout convention, but for crying out loud, don't let anyone think anybody's trying to sell alcohol.

The distiller is right to want to have the same access to consumers that its wine and beer competitors have, but it also knows that breaking the self-imposed code of TV silence is a provocative act. The marketer need only look at the FDA plans to regulate cigarettes to see what the abuse of unfettered commercial speech can lead to. So no cartoon camels for this brand.

No anything that could conceivably unnerve anybody.

Yes, Crown Royal is in the absurd position of risking government interference and public antipathy for the right to advertise . . . invisibly.

Question #4: "Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?"

Seagram knows.

Copyright October 1996 Crain Communications Inc.

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