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A Sizzling New Sell : More and More, Corporations Are Depending on an Advertising Style Born in Los Angeles to Deliver Their Pitch for Your Shopping Dollar

May 11, 1986|DAVID DEVOSS | David DeVoss is a Los Angeles Times Magazine staff writer

In the summer of '84, a television audience of 2 billion people sat down to watch the Olympic Games-- and Los Angeles. Instead of the predictable red, white and blue, the city appeared draped in magenta, vermilion, yellow and aqua. The Games also took place amid ephemeral struc- tures made of cardboard, fabric and fancy. Balloons, murals and wafting pennants lined the boulevards. It was a pivotal 16 days for the city; the world discovered that Los Angeles had replaced its out- moded reputation for ennui and sprawl with culture, cuisine and a sense of humor. And what it lacked in grace, it clearly made up for in style. In the following pages, we offer some of the high points--and the high-profile practitioners--of that style, including the likes of architect Jon Jerde and color consultant Deborah Sussman, who together gave the city its look for the Olympics and still shape its skyline, and Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken, taste-making chefs with the courage to improvise. We've also united rising stars in entertainment with their counterparts in fashion for a sneak preview of L.A. designers' fall collections. Their contributions propel Los Angeles forward, making it, in Jerde's words, "the place where things are going to happen . . . the city of the future."

Through the lens of a Super Panavid camera it looks like a normal campsite. An American family is seated around a tree stump. Their van is parked in the distance. A few timid forest creatures lurk in the foliage. The only incongruity in this bucolic setting is a television monitor that sits atop the stump like an electronic totem.

According to the script, the family is about to view a home movie Dad has shot with his new cassette camera. The video shows the children playing with an adorable little rabbit. The images are so colorful and lifelike that even the forest animals watch.

"Bring the bunny up to center frame," yells director Robert Abel, 49, whose commercials have won 23 Clio awards. "We've got to stop it from jumping around," he says, squinting through his director's loupe. "Can't you stick him down with Krazy Glue?" he asks a flustered animal trainer.

"Forgive me," she says, wincing. "This is my first time with rabbits."

"Well," says Abel, "move him down the branch next to the owl."

"If I put bunny there, he'll end up being the owl's lunch," she stammers, caught between pleasing her superior and sacrificing a friend.

Abel ponders her dilemma, then glances at his watch. After spending five hours on a KTLA sound stage in Hollywood setting up the three-second scene, he allows himself the satisfaction of a sigh.

"OK, let's focus on the deer. Does it have a good side?" he asks with a smile. "The animals are the real stars in this commercial."

But Abel's actual "star" is the Panasonic equipment that's to be advertised, and in this role it receives more attention than any Hollywood ingenue. In a society surfeited with visual stimuli, television commercials must excite and astound. So Abel will take 19 days and $700,000 to produce three 30-second spots for Ted Bates Advertising. The increased complexity of this most competitive of the commercial arts is attracting a growing number of advertisers to Los Angeles, advertisers whose agencies can draw on the resources of the entertainment business and surrounding high-tech industries.

Twenty years ago, commercials consisted mostly of "bite 'n' smile" and "slice of life" sketches in which people munched pizza or compared dirty shirt collars. Today, commercials are often more entertaining than the programs they punctuate. And they certainly are more expensive. More than $21 billion will be spent on TV advertising this year. The average 30-second commercial costs about $250,000, or $8,300 per second, to produce. A situation comedy, by comparison, can be put together for $275 per second.

Corporations with the million-dollar budgets necessary to buy television time have traditionally used New York agencies to mastermind their advertising. Today, though California still ranks second to New York in advertising sold, its agencies are growing twice as fast as those in Manhattan, and the billings of the state's 15 hottest agencies jumped nearly 35% last year, according to Adweek magazine. The increased demand for the region's sophisticated brand of advertising has attracted hundreds of talented writers, designers, photographers and artists. Their collective creative output is described by Adweek as "The L.A. Look--a confluence of elements with boundaries as elusive as the city that fashioned it."

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