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THE ONLINE BIG THREE-America Online, Prodigy and Compuserve-are copying each other again, this time with brand new image campaigns, each from brand new agencies, and each designed to make the brand seem new, which may not be a difficult task since the commercials speak mainly to people who have no online experience in the first place.

What may be a difficult task is distinguishing one service from another, and here's where the three take their separate routes to individuality. AOL and TBWA/Chiat/Day/New York are on the fringe with a demented sideshow; Prodigy and Cliff Freeman & Partners, New York, take a bus down the middle of the road with a warm, enveloping message built on a slightly skewed comic foundation; and Compuserve and Martin/Williams, Minneapolis, buck a heretofore button-down, white-collar image, poking playful fun at potential customers.

"I think humor is a good way to go mainstream with this, to take away some of the intimidation factor," says Martin/Williams CD/writer Lyle Wedemeyer. The Compuserve campaign, directed by Wilson Griak's Steve Griak, is themed, "Sometimes life calls for deeper answers," as befits the service with the least frivolous, most business-oriented rep of the three, but the humor cuts against that grain a bit with typical white, managerial Compuserve types fumbling for answers to VO-asked questions, sometimes acting like morons. People are stumped by queries about interest rates, building codes and the like, but one guy, when asked to explain the presence of rebel forces in Peru, says, "Two words: Argentina"; another guy has no idea what baseball's designated hitter is. "We've tried to use humor in a relevant way, it's not bizarre," says Wedemeyer. As for the people in the ads being dumb, "they're not necessarily typical Compuserve users, they're just illustrating the need for deeper answers. It's got to be viewed with tongue in cheek."

AOL's campaign, an assault of Ben Stiller-directed :15s co-created by Chiat/Day CDs Eric McClellan and Shalom Auslander, is designed to cut through the computer clutter like a laser-guided geek bomb, and is best viewed with tongue in throat. Gun-happy white trash, freaks, has-beens and losers-big Anna Nicole Smith, tiny Emmanuel Lewis, aging Adam West and ancient Jack LaLanne are here, not to mention Mike Tyson's last victim, a transvestite Girl Scout, a loose-limbed crash test dummy and a nerd who signs on wearing a "2001"-inspired monkey glove-put the service somewhere out in virtual left field.

"Who's the most popular character on 'Seinfeld'?" asks Auslander with a rhetorical flourish. "Kramer! And who's more exciting, Batman or the Joker? It's the guys with the edge who stay in your mind. We don't want to be in that advertising universe where everyone is nice and uninteresting." No problem. There's even a spot here where a pretty, barely pubescent blonde girl gives her little brother an atomic wedgie because he's not doing her homework well enough. It's kiddie fem-dom, it's so kinky they don't even have an Usenet group for it!

"The spots aren't about computers, they're about the people who use computers," says McClellan. "We think it's more important to differentiate ourselves from the other services than to do the generic thing." The :15s are just like being online, the two believe. "You jump around, you see all different kinds of weird things," says Auslander. "Focus groups told us that AOL means something different to everyone who's on it, and it even means something different to an individual user depending on the time of day that user is on-people access different areas when they're at work and at home. We never could nail down the one thing that AOL is, because it isn't one thing, so why not show the breadth of the service."

Chiat/Day and AOL apparently aren't afraid to grate to be great. That hideous AOL "Welcome" .wav file, which many AOLers would no doubt love to wave goodbye to, is actually the tagline. "We knew going in that the 'Welcome' guy was annoying," says McClellan, "but he's such a signature of the service that we wanted to replicate that. We also found that one of the things that most AOL users like about the service is that it talks to them. It also makes the spots funnier, because it emphasizes how bad he is. It was the first thing we knew we wanted to do, we weren't forced to use it."

Moreover, these guys don't believe the online services are a source of hopeless mystery and confusion. "There are online columns in all the magazines and newspapers nowadays," says Auslander. "Going online is interesting, it's fun, it's not threatening or complicated. When you get that disc in the mail, you're curious, you pop it in, you explore."

Oddly, the AOL campaign seems to be singing to the loony tune of Cliff Freeman's usual style, but for Prodigy Freeman has gone for a grand filmic sweep, shot by Tony Kaye. While there are some nutty moments here, "I wouldn't call it comedy," says Freeman CD David Angelo."It's about real human elements, real people." In an attempt to shed the old musty Prodigy image, the campaign is themed, "The New Prodigy. Whatever you're into," and the strategy, says Angelo, is, "Prodigy gives you the support to find whatever interests you. We feature the interest groups that are found only on Prodigy," and they're presented via the elaborate visual metaphor of a bus, an actual reconditioned San Francisco Muni bus from the '50s that drives around the country, sometimes with disco dinosaur Barry White at the wheel, picking up fishermen, python owners, banjo players and the like and bathing them in a cinematic Spielbergian warmth of online fellowship.

"There are so many people who just can't figure out what this huge monster called the Internet is," avers Angelo. "We want to give them a feeling of comfort that when they go online, Prodigy is there with them the whole time. We want to humanize the whole thing," but at the same time, "we wanted to project Prodigy's image in an epic way."

That explains the stunning aerial shot of the elephant running along the highway chained to the bus. "Hey, every piece of this campaign was a major production," says Angelo. "Working with kids and animals are supposed to be two of the toughest things you can do in this business, and we had to assemble groups of both-on the same bus. But the campaign certainly has legs." Or wheels, at least. Additional Prodigy credits: Cliff Freeman, exec CD; Mary Ellen Duggan, producer; Tina Hall, writer; John Leu, art director. Editing by Alyssa Benarro and Brent Harrington, US2. Music by M62 and Tomandandy.

For Compuserve: Kathy Lally, producer; Pam Mariutto, art director. Editing by Bob Wicklind and Jeff Stickels, Crash & Sue's. Music by Wow & Flutter. For AOL: Marty Cooke, exec CD; Andrew Chinich, exec producer; Roxanne Karsch, producer.

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