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Always? try "never."

Year after year, the Coke advertising from Edge Creative, Santa Monica, Calif., is never quite right. There are always one or two winners, but overall the stuff is never very entertaining, never very well-constructed, never a very good reflection of the enduring qualities "Always" is meant to represent.

The first two years' spots, from Edge's progenitors at Creative Artists Agency, were wildly uneven but undeniably revolutionary. The succeeding years' spots have been uniformly flat.

And now the latest crop, purportedly aiming to reclaim the emotionalism that characterized the Coke ads of the '70s and '80s, but which mainly reclaims the smiley-faced mediocrity of the McCann-Erickson bad old days.

The best of the new spots is a cartoon of the Merry Melodies variety, about an anthropomorphic delivery truck that wilts under the oppressive heat, until the mouse in the mouse-powered engine refreshes himself with a Coke.

There's also a nicely computer-animated inner-city billboard that comes to life in a swing dance-although the spot will do more for the swing revival than it will for Coke.

And some people will love the "I Pagliacci" spot, in which a little boy who has watched the tenor weep through the opera's famous aria brings him a Coke to cheer him up. It is, of course, the "Mean Joe Greene" spot in clown makeup. Twenty-five years later, however, it's also just too maudlin to stand.

Another throwback is a double-dutch spot filled with grinning, Coke-guzzling, rope-jumping little girls. It's cloying and condescending.

Then there's the special-effects spectacular: 200 skydivers free-falling in the shape of a Coke bottle. But the label is so illegible the spot required an awkward intercut shot of someone on the ground, holding a Coke bottle, gawking, so we would recognize who the advertiser is.

Those spots are all free of dialogue. It gets worse when the characters start talking. Which is most insipid-the one with the nest full of robin hatchlings waiting for Mama Robin to bring back a soda, or the vignette about teen-agers parking at Lovers' Lane? He wants to talk about the futility of life, and she wants "to have a Coke and make out."

Have a Coke and make out? Uh, how about a Snickers and a . . . oh, never mind.

It's astonishing how badly written, acted and directed that ad is. Maybe it's time for Edge to consult a real advertising agency for help.

Hmm. Is McCann-Erickson available?

You'll perhaps recall that McCann's half-century with the Coke account had created something like a czarist bureaucracy, but with less humor and spontaneity. The 7,000-step manufacturing process utilized 231 agency and client senior VPs to find texture, flavor and sharp edges in Coke storyboards, and then immediately to eradicate them.

Such a process yielded, for example, "Share a Coke and a smile," which was not really advertising. It was zwieback.

Then, in 1993, came CAA-which was free to do all the outside-the-box, "new paradigm" work McCann wouldn't have been permitted to imagine. Sure enough, flawed though it was, the work was fresh and exciting. Alas, five years later, the work is still flawed, but it is neither fresh nor exciting. It has become the worst of both worlds: It's a nine-pack of zwiebacks, and six of the crackers are broken.

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