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It is said of the smart aleck, "A thought never crossed his mind that didn't also pass his lips." This refers to the incautiousness and pathological lack of self-control that makes even the cleverest of wags a threat to himself and others when an intemperate remark backfires.

As much can be said for the New York agency Follis & Verdi, which, in an attempt to attract attention to the beleaguered clothier Britches Great Outdoors, has created one of the most brilliant and wickedly funny commercials in memory.

The only difficulty is it should never have been made, because in addition to being brilliant it also is substantially tasteless. But before we commence our latest harangue on advertising decorum, let's first acknowledge what overall is a solid campaign.

Britches Great Outdoors, the sportswear spin-off of the tony East Coast men's clothing chain, has in the past five years seen the recession and its aftermath depress demand for high-end outdoor wear. Now, adjusting its price points downward, the chain is hoping that surging consumer confidence and a trend toward informal attire will rekindle the sales of the go-go '80s.

Enter Follis & Verdi with three commercials promoting comfort over formality. The first shows a clot of prep school boys, outfitted in matching blazers and ties, looking well-heeled but miserable.

"If you ask us," says the voice-over, "it's the kids in private school who are underprivileged. Britches. Regular clothes for regular guys."

A second spot shows a slow-motion ballet of a rain-soaked rugby game, with players sloshing in the mud in drenched uniforms rendered uniformly brown. "Introducing our new fall line of rugby shirts," says the voice-over as the camera focuses on a succession of saturated jerseys. "Forest green and gray. Maroon and off-white. And the ever-popular navy and gold."

The joke, of course, is that the colors described are utterly unrecognizable in the soggy circumstance of authentic garments at work-a joke given texture and impact through the juxtaposition of director Bob Giraldi's evocative cinematography with the copy's wry irreverence. On that score, however, nothing compares with the third spot, which is the stuff of demented genius.

Shot in b&w, it depicts six grim pallbearers emerging from an old church with a casket. With somber deliberation, they shoulder their burden toward a waiting hearse, slide in the coffin and slam the door. "You're going to be wearing a suit for a lonnnng time," says the voice-over. "Dress comfortably ... while you can."

What a hilariously twisted concept-and actually not an uncompelling argument. The problem is that the whole thing is built on the stark, sobering first 25 seconds, into which each viewer is bound to inject his own experience with funerals and death. By the time the punch line comes along, the viewer has imagined a friend or loved one in the coffin, and would have every right to feel betrayed and insulted by the diabolical twist. And no matter how amused Britches' youthful target audience and other thick-skinned viewers may be, there is no excuse for toying with the emotions of everybody else.

It all gets back to the need for decorum and the essential truth of life as a smart aleck: Just because you think of something clever to say doesn't mean you necessarily should say it.

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