Boston Market gets laughs, misses point

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Advertiser: Boston Market Agency: Suissa Miller, Santa Monica, Calif. Ad Review rating: 3 stars It's a studio shot, in black and white, with two sullen and drawn-looking Gen X models, in a nearly somnambulant state of existential pain.

"Life is empty, torturous," says the guy, in a German accent.

"I yearn for more," says the sunken-cheeked young woman. "There's a burning within."

And then, from this ludicrously overwrought tableau of nihilistic crisis, out pops a third character, this one in living color. It's Keith Olberman, the ESPN sportscaster, and he is not impressed.

"Here's a tip," he says, in his trademark skeptical deadpan. "Eat something."

Eat something! Now that was unexpected. Bravo.

Yes, this spot from Suissa Miller, Santa Monica, Calif., which goes on to introduce the Extreme Carver sandwiches from Boston Market, is a true delight for at least five very good reasons:

1) It's very funny. Not since Marshall McLuhan popped out of the movie line in "Annie Hall" to deflate the academic blowhard has there been a more welcome intrusion into our suspension of disbelief. When we see these narcissistic meat puppets, we are screaming inwardly for them to quit whining and get a life. "Eat something" gets hilariously to that point.

2) The setup is a magnificent parody of the austere, angst-ridden, self-obsessed Obsession ads of Calvin Klein--no small feat when you consider that Obsession ads are already jaw-dropping parodies of themselves.

3) The casting is inspired, a perfect use of Olberman, whose sardonic irreverence is just the thing to burst the gigantic soap bubble of expressionist pretentiousness in ads of the Obsession ilk.

4) The punch line is not merely clever, but completely--and unusually--relevant to the subject at hand. Klein's target audience, after all, corresponds quite well to the hungry fast-food heavy users Boston Market is trying to lure into its stores.

5) Even the food photography is better than average. The fact is, some people know how to light a green pepper better than others; the sandwiches look mighty appetizing.

And yet . . . yet . . . watching this spot, and the nearly equally clever on-the-beach version, one feels a certain emptiness.

One yearns for more. What one yearns for, mainly, is a better strategy. This is a very good commercial for a very bad marketing idea.

Boston Market became a zeitgeist phenomenon by providing for harried families the hot meals they feel nutritionally and culturally entitled to but lack the time and energy to prepare. It has profitably mined the nexus of practicality and psychology, not only offering traditional comfort food at reasonable prices but also preserving the very sanctity of the evening meal.

It is, in other words, the family cook. It is not, nor should it ever be positioned as, a fast-food joint.

Boston Market has neither the number nor the character of locations to compete with the sandwich slingers of the world. So why, for the sake of whatever marginal growth they might enjoy by attracting a few hungry teen-agers, dilute the brand meaning, brand message and media budget?

The advertiser should take some advice from its own commercials, especially the main brand advertising from Goldberg Moser O'Neill, San Francisco, which is clever in its own right and right on target. The slogan: "Don't mess with dinner."

That burning from within? It's called greed.

Copyright March 1997, Crain Communications Inc.

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