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On today's Regis: advertising without imagination, and the fast-food chain that pays for it.

Be sure to tune in. See talk show host Regis Philbin in two new spots for Hardee's and Joan Rivers in two others. See Hardee's day-late-and-a-dollar-short value menu introduced amid so much borrowed interest that there is precious little payment on principal.

"We're back with the Hardee's Girls," Regis says to open one spot, on a generic talk show set with three dowdy older women (looking a lot like the Denny's sisters, only in pastel cardigans). "You, Meg, have `co-host' written all over you."

"That's what Joan Rivers says!" is the reply, and, though the exchange isn't funny, everybody is in stitches.

"Well," says Regis, "what about these $1.99 Choices?"

Then one of the women describes the three value meals, served every day for $1.99, and Regis says, "Kathie Lee's gone. It's yours." More laughter follows, over precisely what it is difficult to say. Suddenly "Widows who married their husbands' killers" is looking like Socratic dialogue.

One can suppose what prompted this high-price, low-concept approach: 1) Trashy talk shows are all the rage. 2) It's easy to mimic them. 3) If you pay huge dollars to real TV hosts, viewers will watch ... maybe with the same morbid curiosity that draws them to Montel, Geraldo and other tele-indignities.

Sure enough, these spots minimally accomplish their first objective. When they come on, you watch. And, if you ignore the clumsy cuts and laugh track, they reasonably approximate the cadences and mannerisms of the real shows.

You may even watch with greater than usual expectation, to see whatever they might do to make it all relevant to Hardee's.

But you won't find a connection. There is none.

Unlike, say, Dave Thomas' Wendy's character, who is square and old-fashioned just like the product he is pitching, the Hardee's Girls have no meaning in and of themselves. They're just a gimmick within a gimmick. And the very mechanism that draws you into the spots-the similarity to actual talk shows-distracts you from the price message these brassy grammas have to deliver.

Oh, the first four spots have their moments. In one, after Peg launches into the $1.99 menu options, Rivers cracks, "I once got a silk blouse for $1.99."

The Hardee's Girl's comeback: "With fries and a drink?"

That is funny, but in general the viewer is so busy looking (in vain) for clever twists on the talk show premise, that the substance drifts by unnoticed.

In any event, in this business of borrowed interest, it is often a good idea not to do the borrowing from a genre notorious for mindless exhibitionism, moral bankruptcy and sleaze.

Which is why you never see Ronald McDonald in the same picture with Congress.

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