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Group Is Determined to Spread the Notion That Ads Should Sell Ideas

BRUCE HOROVITZ / Marketing

August 22, 1989|BRUCE HOROVITZ

The actor who appears on the TV screen looks relatively normal. Except for one thing. Atop his shoulders, in the spot where his head would normally be, sits a TV set.

"Tubehead"--as he is called--spends the entire 15-second commercial trying to yank the TV set off his head. At the very end of the commercial, this message flashes on the screen: Can you switch off?

Don't expect to see this ad on American television any time soon. But one major Canadian network has agreed to run it. Behind this commercial--which is scheduled to be filmed this week in Vancouver--are two Canadian documentary film makers who are also environmental activists. They say they are fed up with the ads on commercial TV. And they have decided to take on not only North America's major TV networks--but advertisers, too.

"We're going to redefine the advertising industry," said Kalle Lasn, co-founder of the Media Foundation, a nonprofit organization in Vancouver that says commercials on television should sell fewer products and more progressive ideas.

At the very least, the organization says, if huge paper companies can run ads about how many millions of trees they are growing, there should also be room for groups like theirs to purchase air time on network TV about the sensitive ecological environments that these same paper companies are destroying.

"Our point is to break the trance that people get into when they are watching TV," said Lasn, 47, a documentary film maker who at one time worked as a researcher for an advertising agency in Japan, compiling research for such clients as Coca-Cola and General Foods. "We're all consuming like crazy people during a time of ecological crisis. We will offer anti-consumption messages in the middle of all those other messages that keep telling people to buy things."

How to pay for the production and air time of these "alternative" TV ads? Well, last month the group printed its first issue of a quarterly magazine that it has appropriately named Adbusters. It hopes to get enough subscribers--and contributors--to fund a number of anti-consumption ads. In the meantime, Adbusters has received some financial backing from several environmental groups, including the Sierra Club and the Western Canada Wilderness Committee.

"I never saw the film 'Ghostbusters,' " admitted Bill Schmalz, the co-publisher of Adbusters who thought up its name. "But I think the name is quite catchy." Schmalz, 49, has never worked for an ad agency, but has filmed several short movies that focus on the outdoors.

The first issue of Adbusters, which was printed last month, includes articles on subliminal advertising, how advertisers attract the attention of children and even an article on how to make and air your own TV commercial for under $2,000.

The organization does have some support from American advertising experts. Two mid-level West Coast advertising executives--who have asked not to be named--are quietly acting as consultants. And George Gerbner, dean emeritus at Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Pennsylvania, has also spoken out for Adbusters.

"The networks discourage anything but mainstream advertising, and that is too limiting," said Gerbner. "There is a long history of the networks refusing to accept certain ads because they are afraid it could cost them their major advertisers."

Perhaps nothing better symbolizes the types of advertising that Adbusters supports than a print ad that appears on the inside of the front cover of its first issue. The "ad" is a parody of a former Winston cigarette campaign. In it, an attractive woman is holding a pack of cigarettes while she stands in the sort of natural setting typical of tobacco advertising.

But the headline on the ad is a shocker: "If it wasn't for cigarettes, I wouldn't have cancer." The ad was included in a book of parody ads called "A Tale of Advertising in America," published in 1976 by Terry Shukle, an Ann Arbor, Mich.-based free-lance photographer.

"The trick is to create an ad that is humorous enough to attract attention but that doesn't offend the very people you're trying to reach," said Shukle. "But I wonder if people can handle ads like this. There seems to be so many restrictions these days, that if you stick your nose out, you're liable to get it whacked."

Indeed, Adbusters has already had its nose whacked by the Canadian Broadcasting Network, which has rejected the "Tubehead" ad based on rough illustrations that it was sent. But Canada's second largest network, Canadian Television Network, has agreed to run it.

Soon, Adbusters will be trying to get the ad aired on the major TV stations in Los Angeles, New York and Chicago. But the prospects look dim. Executives at the three major networks say the ad sounds too controversial for them.

"Showing that ad would be like shooting ourselves in the foot," said Harvey Dzodin, vice president of commercial clearance at ABC television in New York. "Make that, shooting ourselves in the tube."

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