Commentary by Rance Crain


'Can You Hear Me Now?' And Other Silly and Confusing Gimmicks

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Sometimes what you don't say in your ads looms larger than what you do say.

Most consumers are savvy enough to know that ads

Rance Crain, editor in chief, 'Advertising Age'

Previous Columns.
that harp on some gimmicky contrivance probably are trying to keep attention away from a bigger problem -- like a product that doesn't have any advantage over its competitors. The classic example is the Infiniti campaign of 1989, which introduced the luxury auto from Nissan in a Zenlike way, showing, in one TV spot, leaves floating on a pond with the sounds of crickets.

Creepy Verizon guy
Maybe I'm a little too picky, but I view the creepy "Can you hear me now?" guy who roams the world testing the reception of Verizon Wireless as one of those gimmicky contrivances. We all know there isn't much (any?) difference between mobile phones, but the Verizon ads make me wonder if the company has had unusual problems since the Verizon guy seems to be testing its signal every couple of feet. Should I be concerned its system is still a work in progress? I'm glad to know Verizon never stops working for me but I think I'll come back when they finish the job.

I was willing to buy into that other spooky guy, the one who goes around in a black raincoat giving people free Sprint phones. But now Sprint has heaped that gimmicky contrivance atop another contrivance: A man is seen hanging upside down to demonstrate that he is upside down over where to go to get straight talk on buying a mobile phone. The Sprint guy sets him right side up, but I think the campaign is running out of gas.

The phone companies need to do something -- anything -- to stand out. AT&T Wireless traded off the MetLife insurance name by calling their service MLife. And now Deutsche Telekom is trading off MLife by introducing T-Mobile with the tagline "Get more from life." The idea here, I gather, is that we should think of MetLife being copied by MLife being copied by T-Mobile when we try to decide what kind of life to get.

Pretending to be car
In reintroducing General Motors' Saturn cars, Goodby, Silverstein & Partners takes us back to the golden days, when Nissan first introduced Infiniti with arty commercials showing leaves, rocks, twigs and other glories of nature. The Saturn ads show a bunch of people marching down highways and byways pretending to be automobiles. The justification for this rather absurd premise is that, as the voice-over says, "When we design cars, we don't see sheet metal. We see the people who may someday drive them."

Interestingly, this was the same rationale used for Infiniti. The automaker's director of marketing explained to us that Infiniti's marketing approach extended beyond selling sheet metal to promoting the environment in which the cars are sold and serviced.

That, as I recall, wasn't enough. The "trees and rocks" commercials got people to come into the showrooms but once they saw the cars they were underwhelmed. Our editor, Scott Donaton, is equally unimpressed by the Saturn spots. He doesn't see much of a selling idea in the ads. "People are treating it like it's a big idea but I don't think it is. ... It's a cute visual gag."

David Ogilvy had a great line: "If you don't have anything to say, sing it." The new line, courtesy of Saturn, is destined to be: "If you don't have anything to say, pretend you're a car."

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