X + Bowie, B.B. and Snoop= satellite-radio spot success

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Fm stands for frequency modulation. That means the difference between one FM radio signal and another is based on the frequency of the waves. AM stands for amplitude modulation. This means that the height of the waves is what differentiates signals.

XM stands for ... uh ... hey, can we get back to you on that?

Evidently, the X in XM is like the X in everything else: X-sports, Generation X, XFL. 7-Eleven is even selling an X Gulp for the bladder-well-endowed. We suppose if they came up with some sort of newfangled way to photograph bones right through the skin, they'd probably call them X-rays.

Brand X, once the generic for "generic," has come to mean some combination of modern, edgy, unconventional, youthful and maybe a little dangerous.

That certainly would describe XM radio, a young company that has dangerously invested $42 million so far, with several hundred million to go, against the chance of selling satellite radio to consumers.

Please note: We didn't say "selling satellite radios." Others will try to do that, mainly in deals worked out between consumer-electronics manufacturers and carmakers. XM's job is to persuade people to fork over $10 a month to receive an endless variety of programming far beyond what is available on local AM and FM bands. If you favor zydeco or real-estate advice or car-racing or Sinatra, you'll be able to get your favorite stations whether you're in Oregon or Florida.

If this works out, such formats as "urban" and "easy listening" will soon seem preposterously broad. That will come as good news to, say, hardcore black metal fans who want to be freed from the sentimental cooings of Metallica-provided those aficionados are willing to pay the freight. At some point in the near future XM, and competitor Sirius, will have to reproduce the Evian Miracle: getting people to pay to import [from outer space, no less] what hitherto had been available locally for free.

For now, however, XM is content simply to introduce the concept. An intriguing campaign from TBWA/Chiat/Day, Playa del Rey, Calif., attempts to do so via a most vivid metaphor. Please also note: We said "attempts."

Actually, we very much admire the commercials, which depict people and things just tumbling from the sky. Snoop Doggy Dogg, B.B. King, a Nascar racer, a piano, 45 rpm discs and lots of sports equipment-separately and in one umbrella spot-just come raining down. Mr. Dogg crashes through an office ceiling, Mr. King through a barn, David Bowie into a hotel room-precisely as satellite radio's signals fall from space.

We're particularly fond of the Bowie spots. We hear him, the original man who fell to earth, screaming as he plummets onto a motel roof and tears through into an elderly couple's room. "I'll never get used to that," he mutters. (Yo, Mr. Coffee Achiever: Try decaf.)

"Beyond AM," the voice-over says. "Beyond FM. XM satellite radio. Radio to the power of X."

So, yes, we love it. The problem, however, is that we admire the imagery because we are the AdReview staff, and we know everything. Most of the viewing audience won't be as extraordinarily well-informed as we are about satellite radio, and likely won't catch the analogy at all.

Pop stars and basketballs falling to earth? Huh? XM? Is that some sort of laxative?

We shouldn't be too harsh, because XM will have ample time to more fully explain. While the commercials would benefit from some more clarity, in the short term a little puzzlement isn't necessarily a liability. If you think of this as a teaser campaign, meant to pique curiosity while introducing the brand, the fuzziness of the message doesn't seem so careless. X marks the spot, you might say.

If, on the other hand, you see this as yet another example of creatives addressing not consumer audiences but one another, we can offer little comfort-although, if the chronic insularity really drives you crazy, you can always subscribe to XM.

Sure, it's $120 a year. In 36 out of 100 channels, there's no advertising.

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