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If you took all of the creative directors who ever viewed some innocuous package-good spot and

Bob Garfield
sneered, "But where's the idea?" and you laid them end to end in the westbound passing lane of I-80, you'd be doing a great service to mankind.

Sorry if we seem a little hostile, but we've been to too many festivals and judging events where the dressed-all-in-blacks mouth that question, thus articulating what their own advertising output makes all too clear: They put more stock in cleverness for its own sake than in communication.

Yo, nimrod, here's the idea: Sell the damn product.

We, of course, love, love, love ingenious, unexpected ideas employed in the service of moving the goods. But we have to admit our growing frustration and anger -- developed over 15 years -- at the mentality that ranks novelty above ingenuity, ingenuity above effectiveness and effectiveness maybe above unemployment, but not above suspicion.

Yes, we admit it. We, the Ad Review staff, have become an embittered old man, blinded by ad rage, so that if we're not careful we'll start sounding like the corporate mission statement of the Colgate-Palmolive Co. After all, while "Where's the idea?" may not be the only question, it's often enough of a legitimate question. We recalled this recently while randomly viewing four commercials in the AdReview in-box:

Advertiser: ADT
Agency: Doner, Southfield, Mich.
Ad Review rating: Two stars

From the spot by Doner, Southfield, Mich.
A '40s-style cartoon shows an oblivious little piggy in his straw cottage as the big, bad wolf begins to huff and puff to blow the house down. But the wolf can't do it, because the house is protected by an ADT alarm system.

This is an example of an almost-good idea that winds up being no good because it doesn't quite scan -- inasmuch as alarms don't gird structural integrity. If this were for steel studs or Tyvek house wrap, swell. But the "protection" in the metaphor doesn't match the protection of the product, and in the cognitive dissonance, the brand message is substantially lost.

Advertiser: VW Passat
Agency: Arnold Worldwide, Boston
Ad Review rating: Two and a half stars

From the spot by Arnold Worldwide, Boston.
In three spots, bystanders see a Passat and assume the owner is filthy rich. In one, a guy whose old wreck is dinged by a Passat in a parallel park fakes a whiplash case. In another, a van of kidnappers seize a Passat driver, only to return him later unharmed.

These are nice gags, and funny, and the point is made. But it's a Buick point -- not a VW Passat one. There is so much more to say about the esteemed Passat beyond its expensive looks. So while this is a reasonably good idea, for this brand the superficiality makes it the wrong idea.

Advertiser: Citibank
Agency: Fallon Worldwide, Minneapolis
Ad Review rating: Two stars

From the spot by Fallon worldwide, Minneapolis.
Such a charming campaign: people engaged in various goofy and otherwise satisfying activities -- from making stupid faces to swinging your toddler in circles to serenading your would-be girlfriend. The pitch: "There's more to life than money. There's a bank that understands that. Live richly."

What a marvelous way to position yourself as the humane financial services company, the one that has its priorities in order. Only two problems: 1) It's a total heap of steaming, stinking disingenuousness; banks have no soul. 2) MasterCard staked out that positioning two years ago, with an equally charming, thematically identical "Priceless" campaign: "There are some things money can't buy. For everything else there's MasterCard."

So, questions of sincerity aside, the Citibank folks have indeed gotten hold of a dazzling, emotional idea. It simply doesn't belong to them.

Advertiser: Chips Ahoy!
Agency: FCB Worldwide, New York
Ad Review rating: One star

From the spot by FCB Worldwide, New York.
To introduce two line extensions, Nabisco gives us still more digitally animated cookies in yet another big-band version of "Sing! Sing! Sing!" Why? Why? Why? As always, this is lots of sound and fury signifying nothing.

Which is to say, in the words of the darkly clad (and thus ones we never imagined would ever pass our trembling, wizened lips) where's the idea?

Copyright April 2001, Crain Communications Inc.

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