Star Presenter: Seinfeld cast scoops up ad award

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For a TV show that portends to be about nothing, "Seinfeld" sure sells a lot of something.

Nobody knows that better than the advertisers who pony up nearly $1 million per minute for commercials during the show, and those who lay out big bucks to feature "Seinfeld" cast members in their advertising.

The show, in fact, may arguably boast the most cast members-turned-ad spokesmen in recent history, accounting for one reason why Advertising Age has named the entire ensemble as its Star Presenter of the Year for 1994.

The other reason for the unusual group award, a first in its 20-year history: This isn't just celebrity advertising, but advertising that works.

Jerry Seinfeld, who has had a relationship with American Express Co. since 1993, explained why.

"It is a good combination. When you're on TV in a sitcom, there's a loose reality that lends itself to doing commercials, which are also on TV. As long as you're on TV pretending to be something you're not anyway, why not do it for a commercial?"

That "loose reality" has been a winning combination for the various "Seinfeld"-related ad campaigns, including Julia Louis-Dreyfus' work for Clairol's Nice 'n Easy hair coloring, Jason Alexander's Rold Gold pretzel spots for Frito-Lay and a range of work from Michael Richards, including Pepsi-Cola spots and ads in Canada for Warner-Lambert's Clorets.

Also ringing up recognition are AT&T Corp.'s spots from FCB/Leber Katz Partners, New York, featuring Estelle Harris and Jerry Stiller, who portray the mother and father of Mr. Alexander's George Costanza character.

"It has taken on its own life," said Mr. Stiller of the Costanza characters and their implied evolution to AT&T's humorous spots, which never identify them by name. "I see it on the street. People come up to me and say, `Circles.' A six-year-old kid came up to me and said, `Anybody?," said Mr. Stiller referring to two catch-phrases from the memorable AT&T campaign.

Ms. Harris, who along with Mr. Stiller is a veteran commercials actor, having appeared in countless spots including her current work for Johnson & Johnson/Merck's Mylanta, says it is the familiarity of the Costanza characters that make them so accessible to viewers.

"You don't know if the Costanzas are Jewish, or Italian, or what," she said. "Wherever I go, young people stop me and say I remind them of their mother. They could be Filipino, black, Italian or Asian; it doesn't matter, I remind them of their mother."

While the Costanzas' AT&T work exemplifies the loose reality between the "Seinfeld" characters and actors, the principals say they merely are trying to be funny in their respective product commercials, and that if that evokes images of Jerry, Elaine, George and Kramer, that is just part of the bargain.

"I hope that the reason that I work as an endorser is because this material is comedic," said Ms. Louis-Dreyfus of her Nice 'n Easy campaign from J. Walter Thompson USA, New York.

"I think that when something is funny, it sells. I really do. And I think that the commercial format, be it a 30-, a 45- or a 60-second spot, is right for a joke. I think the format is just very often perfect for laying out a joke--one joke. It's not easy to do, but if you can do it, it can be successful."

And how. Nice 'n Easy sales for the 52 weeks ended June 18, 1995, were $127.1 million, up 9.8% for a 13.8% category share in food, drug and mass merchandiser outlets, according to Information Resources Inc.

"We're on the strongest growth track since introduction. We attribute that to her campaign," Janice Weiss, senior product manager, Nice 'n Easy, said of Ms. Louis-Dreyfus, who began endorsing the brand in '93. "It's a pretty mature business. We needed something to revive it and Julia has done that."

Similarly, Mr. Alexander's and Mr. Richards' off-show TV commercial work appears to be extensions of their on-show characters.

In the Rold Gold spots from DDB Needham Worldwide's Chicago office, Mr. Alexander turns the tables on his hapless George Costanza character in situations such as parachuting from a plane--transforming him from the ultimate loser to the quintessential winner.

Steven Leavitt, president of Marketing Evaluations, which produces the TV Q and Performer Q ratings that are gospel for marketers' selections of commercial endorsers, said Mr. Alexander ranked 26th among male performers in prime-time TV shows in 1995.

Mr. Richards ranked No. 5 and Mr. Seinfeld No. 13. Ms. Louis-Dreyfus was ninth among prime-time female performers.

But the low ranking doesn't stop Mr. Alexander from selling pretzels. "He's become the Pretzel Boy," said a Frito-Lay spokeswoman. "He drives people into the snack aisles."

Indeed. IRI reports Rold Gold sales were up a whopping 53.8%, to $185.4 million, for the 52 weeks ended June 1995, a period that reflects Mr. Alexander's role in the effort.

While it's hard to correlate the work of the other "Seinfeld" performers directly with an impact on their products' sales, all the brands seem to be doing well.

As for Mr. Seinfeld's work for American Express, handled by Ogilvy & Mather, New York, he is believed to have helped stem a share loss begun in 1993, just prior to the debut of Mr. Seinfeld's work for the card.

As for Ms. Harris and Mr. Stiller, their spots--together with AT&T's overall "True" strategy--have helped the carrier gain 14 million customers, achieving a 60% share of the long-distance market last year.

It's harder to gauge Mr. Richards' impact on Pepsi, because he was used primarily as a bit player in spots, including a bumbling scientist who puts Cindy Crawford into a Pepsi deprivation tank; when she emerges, she's Rodney Dangerfield.

The lack of exposure in the Pepsi work is believed to have been a source of contention between Mr. Richards and Pepsi agency BBDO Worldwide, New York. Though Mr. Richards has since severed his ties with the brand, he couldn't help tweaking them. In "Seinfeld's" final episode of the 1994-95 season, Mr. Richards' Kramer character is seen drinking a Coke.

Mr. Richards has done other commercial work, including the Clorets spots in Canada and print ads for retailer The Gap. He's rumored to be readying an America Online ad.

With such appeal--and as the series enters what might be its final season--many wonder if there might not be an ensemble spot on the horizon featuring the entire cast.

"Definitely not," says Mr. Seinfeld. "Then it's the show. I wouldn't want to do the show as a commercial."

But as Ms. Louis-Dreyfus notes: "It would be a funny ad, though."

Copyright September 1995 Crain Communications Inc.

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