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Riddle: What's mostly plastic, battery-powered and makes it easy to change the channel?

Answer: The Puttermans.

We refer, of course, to the fanciful polystyrene family at the center of Duracell's new TV campaign. Thanks to the high tech miracle of moviemaking prosthetics, this typical suburban family of four is made up to look like life-size, battery-operated toys-toys much like the ones that graced Duracell commercials for a decade, only much larger and with the unfortunate addition of plot and dialogue.

The illusion is carried off brilliantly. The effect is truly remarkable. And the advertising it graces, from Ogilvy & Mather, New York, could scarcely be worse.

"So," says the mom, Flo Putterman, to begin one spot set at a backyard barbecue, "is everybody using Duracell batteries?"

"You kidding?" asks Uncle Joe. "The second I heard they had a battery that outlasts all other batteries I bought the family a whole case."

"Reminds me of the first time we tried Duracell batteries," pipes up Aunt Gertrude, who we are to assume is the obnoxious buffoon in the family, but who, take our word for it, is no worse than anybody else. "We were living in Tulsa with your great Aunt Emma. We shared one room ..." And, splat! She falls rigid-face down in her tetrazzini. (At a cookout?) As her back comes into view, where her battery plugs in, we see she's been powered by something other than a Duracell.

"Herb," says Flo to Mr. Put-terman, "did you slip her one of those other batteries?"

"Me?" he replies, with a guilty smile. And-ha, ha, with Gertrude unconscious in her food, utterly degraded-the whole family begins to laugh. Oh, those zany Puttermans.

The first few times you encounter advertising's first injection-molded TV family, you won't be able to tear yourself from the screen, so astonishing is the illusion. After that, you'll find yourself diving for the remote, because in addition to being remarkably costumed, The Puttermans are also remarkably offputting. Even grotesque. Mr. Putterman-who is one part Fred Gwynne, one part Jay Leno and one part Big Boy-is the second most irritating "Herb" in commercial history. And closing fast.

But the real problem with this campaign isn't how noisy and unfunny it is. The real problem is how the toy effects and the insipid little vignettes obscure the advertising message-a message that should have been the industry's first product superiority claim in more than a decade.

You'll recall that the genius of the original toys campaign was how it specifically claimed superior endurance only as measured against previous generations of Duracells. Yet the image of one toy losing power before another encouraged viewers to infer a category superiority message.

Ironically, now that Duracell's patented technological refinements permit an explicit superior-endurance claim, the message is utterly lost amid all the commotion. We watched these ads over and over, and never registered the "outlasts other batteries" phrase until we read the press release.

Wasn't it David Ogilvy who said, "If there is news to deliver, deliver it"? He might have added not to deliver it in the middle of Main Street while the circus parade goes by.

In concept, life-size Duracell toys seem an elegant way to recharge what was a splendid, long-lasting campaign. In practice, however, The Puttermans are a clear-cut case of assault with batteries.

Ad Age Bulletin Board on Prodigy, or by Prodigy E-Mail at EFPB35A.

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