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He's blue. He's fit. He's no longer suicidal. Charlie the Tuna is back.

Yes, the anthropomorphic albacore once again is on TV for Starkist. But everything has changed. Back in the old days, when Leo Burnett USA was the agency and H.J. Heinz Co. still believed in national advertising, Charlie was a boorish loudmouth with a Triborough accent and a perverse desire to be hooked and eaten.

Like Joey Buttafuoco with gills.

Thus did he perform an endless succession of stunts-taking up chess, for instance-to persuade the fishermen of his superior breeding. But, as he was repeatedly told, usually via note barbed onto a single dangling hook, "Sorry Charlie."

Starkist, you see, didn't want tunas with good taste. It wanted tunas that taste good-one of those simpleminded ideas upon which a chunk-light fortune was made. Charlie was the archetypal Big Idea. Also a bizarre one.

Consider the weird psychology of conferring upon an animal a human personality in order to make people want to eat him. Then there was the quaint notion of netless fishing with a single hook enticing a single tuna. (Heck, even sport fishermen use multihooked lures, a series of fake squids arranged in geometric progression, dancing in the water like synchronized calamari.)

And, of course, there was the whole death wish thing.

It actually seemed in 1992 that his dream had come true. Heinz had all but stopped national advertising, to bleed accumulated brand equity and transfuse the bottom line, and Charlie disappeared.

Burnett and Heinz eventually parted company, but now here comes the boutique Tom Reilly Consortium of Evanston, Ill., and-lo!-here comes Charlie. Alas, resurfacing in the hypersensitive '90s, even tuna fish have to face what political pundits call the "character issue." Were this character to exhibit his old behavior, he'd be off on paid medical leave and his co-gamefish would be getting sensitivity training. So the 1995 Charlie surfs and plays soccer and utters not one word, much less plots his own demise.

Very enlightened. Very PC (piscinely correct). In each of three spots, now running in three test markets, Charlie's role is merely to be seen, an icthyocameo provoking a desire for a delicious tuna-based meal.

"Who's hungry?" asks the soccer mom in one of the spots.

"I am! I am!" shout the kids.

"Oh, okayyy, how about some .... tacos?"


Then the live-action mom spies the animated Charlie, spurring her to say .... "uh, tuna tacos?"

"Yeah! That sounds cool!"

Well, no, that sounds nauseating. But the kids start listing ingredients and, amid splendid food photography, a recipe is born. Also a useful reminder about the versatility and simplicity of tuna dishes. Also a reasonably deft relaunching of a pathetically emasculated brand personality.

That's a lot happening in one 30-second commercial, but the Reilly agency has made fairly seamless work of it.

The timing is interesting. If product life-cycle theory is correct, soon enough the milking of major Heinz brands should begin to take its market-share toll. Take this campaign national and maybe Starkist's damage could be minimized. Give it short shrift and.... well, sorry, Charlie.

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