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They're Everywhere! They Sell Anything!

BRUCE HOROVITZ / Marketing

May 10, 1988|BRUCE HOROVITZ

Joe Isuzu is hawking hamburgers. The California raisins are dancing for a breakfast cereal.

Suddenly two wildly successful commercial characters created specifically to hype one product are selling something else.

People know Joe Isuzu as the guy who lies about Isuzu cars and trucks. But now he's on loan to Burger King to push its new Big Cheese burger in a tie-in with an Isuzu sweepstakes. And everyone knows that the dancing raisins hoof it for the California Raisin Advisory Board. Now, they are also doing the old soft shoe for Post Raisin Bran--and even appearing on the front of its cereal boxes.

Joe Isuzu is still cast in the role of a liar in the Burger King promotion that will air regionally in mid-May. And the dancing raisins are still dancing to the Motown sound for Post Raisin Brand in an ad campaign that will continue throughout the summer.

Both of these moves are being closely watched by advertisers and ad agency executives. If they prove successful, executives say more of the same can be expected. What's more, some executives add, as advertisers turn more and more towards hard-sell promotions--and less and less toward building brand images--the use of fresh approaches in advertising may decline.

"These are purely opportunistic moves by advertisers," said Guy Day, a co-founder of the Los Angeles ad firm Chiat/Day who is now an author and consultant. Although the promotions may prove to be successful, he said, "what you're looking at is the continued invasion of promotional schemes into the brand-building process."

What does this say about the current state of creativity in advertising? Is this clever commercial use of characters that the public already knows and loves? Or is it simply an indication that inventiveness is at such a low point that advertisers are literally paying to borrow each others' creations?

"On a gut level, some of this seems like a creative cop-out," said Nancy Shalek, president of the Los Angeles-based Shalek Agency. "It didn't take a rocket scientist to think of these campaigns."

What's more, ad executives say, viewers could become confused over exactly what a character is selling. "My question," said Roger Livingston, president of the Seattle-based ad agency, Livingston & Co., "is whether people will pay a lot of attention to any of these characters out of context."

But advertisers insist that the promotional ploys with recycled characters are opportunities that are simply too good to pass up.

"If we had tried to go and create our own characters--and make them as popular as the dancing raisins--we would have been accused of ripping them off," said Bruce Grieve, senior product manager for the Post division of General Foods. "It doesn't bother me that a character in our advertisements became famous though someone else's work."

That someone else is the San Francisco office of the ad firm Foote, Cone & Belding, which created the dancing raisins in 1986.

"We're not just picking up someone else's idea," said Carolyn Carter, senior vice president at Grey Advertising, which is handling the Post Raisin Brand ads. "We are hiring superstar raisin celebrities who have taken on a life of their own."

While neither General Foods nor its ad firm would reveal the price it is paying to license the dancing raisins for a series of commercials, industry executives estimate that the use of the characters probably cost about $750,000--which is more than many celebrities charge to appear in commercials.

Meanwhile, executives at Burger King and American Isuzu insist the campaign that features Joe Isuzu promoting both companies is also a winner. While Burger King is trying to cash in on Joe Isuzu's fame, American Isuzu is hoping to broaden awareness of its vehicles by getting Joe Isuzu's face plastered in hundreds, if not thousands, of Burger King restaurants.

But the Los Angeles ad firm that filmed the commercial--NW Ayer Pacific--wasn't always comfortable with its role. "Initially it was very awkward," said Jerry Murff, a creative director at the firm. "Another ad firm (Della Femina, Travisano & Partners) had already developed the character."

In fact, to make certain that Joe Isuzu did not stray from his familiar role, a representative from Della Femina stayed on the set during the filming.

"From our standpoint, it's a logical extention of his character," said Leon Rosen, marketing director at Isuzu. "And if you didn't know any better," Rosen added, "you'd think it was an Isuzu ad."

You have his word on it.

Agency Group Pushes for Minority Members

The West Coast has one of the largest concentrations of minority-owned ad agencies in the country. But few of these agencies appear to be much interested in the ad industry's regional trade group, the Western States Advertising Agencies Assn.

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