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To Reach Somebody--or Better Yet Everybody--Ads Feature Nobody

September 11, 1990|BRUCE HOROVITZ

The makers of New Balance sneakers figured that they were really on to something when they came up with this ad slogan: Endorsed by no one.

No Michael Jordan. No Bo Jackson. Not even Tip O'Neill.

Then, New Balance received a letter from a self-proclaimed nobody. The handwritten letter came courtesy of Thomas Savaro--captain of his playground basketball team, the Brooklyn Hurricanes. "You are 100% right when you say your product is endorsed by no one," said Savaro. "I am a no one, and so is every kid on the playground in Brooklyn. A team of no ones endorses your product every Sunday where it counts most--on the field."

This young basketball player's off-the-court thinking mirrors that of some of the most familiar names in advertising and marketing. With increasing frequency, advertisers are replacing celebrities with nobodies. Products--not people--are becoming the centerpieces.

"It's the product as hero rather than the hero as hero," said Carl Spielvogel, chairman of the New York agency Backer Spielvogel Bates, which creates ads for Hyundai.

Behind all this, executives say, is the desire to push products during tough economic times. With attractive people no longer competing with products for attention in some advertisements, executives say it is much harder to confuse the message.

New print campaigns for a number of advertisers, ranging from Ocean Pacific Sunwear to Fender Musical Instruments, feature photos that completely obscure the faces of the people in them and shift the focus to the products.

A new print ad for the clothing chain Banana Republic shows a woman wearing a denim shirt and jeans--but only from the shoulders down and the knees up. In a print ad for Johnnie Walker Red, the faces of two laughing women are virtually obscured while they lean on each others' shoulders. The face of a man sailing a boat in rough waters is completely covered by his own arm in an ad for Mount Gay rum. And a print ad for American Telephone & Telegraph shows the blurred image of a couple packing for a move--but only from the hips down.

A recent regional TV campaign for Toyota Dealers Assn. of Southern California featured a so-called Unknown Spokesman who was shown only from the shoulders down. Viewers saw his hands waving and heard his voice offering deals--but the camera never showed his face.

So intent was the dealers association on promoting the cars--and not the person--that it instructed its Los Angeles ad agency, Davis Ball & Colombatto, not to reveal to the press the identity of the so-called Unknown Spokesman.

Even Doritos tortilla chips, which pays megabucks to popular spokesman Jay Leno, recently ran a Leno-less print ad that showed an unidentifiable person waving a bag of Doritos while sinking in a swimming pool.

"Our success has long been based on product emphasis," said Joe R. Eisaman III, chairman of the Los Angeles agency Eisaman, Johns & Laws Advertising, which creates ads for Price Pfister faucets.

Recently, a popular actress tried to make an appointment with Eisaman to discuss appearing in some ads. "I told her not to bother," said Eisaman. "We don't use a lot of people in our ads."

For New Balance, the choice was simple. The company knew it couldn't possibly afford to compete with the likes of Nike--which spends millions of dollars every year for its all-star lineup of spokesmen. "We could spend our entire advertising budget just to hire one person," said Michael Cronin, basketball product manager at Boston-based New Balance Athletic Shoes. "But we're in the shoe business, not the endorsement business. For us, product is still king."

Certainly product is king at the furniture retailer Conran's Habitat. The Manhattan-based chain has a national print ad that shows a colorful couch being lugged into an apartment building by the blurred images of two men. "Today, almost any ad can be interpreted as a fashion ad," said Joseph Cabalquinto, associate art director at the company. "It can look like you're selling clothing when you're really selling furniture. We didn't want to leave any doubt."

The casual clothing chain Ocean Pacific Sunwear isn't showing any faces in its ads for a new line of denim clothing that it recently introduced. Ads in "Rolling Stone" and "Spin" magazine show only fleeting images of people wearing the denim clothing in water. "We didn't want the people to be recognizable," said Bonnie Crail, executive vice president of marketing at the Tustin-based company. "All we wanted was to tie in the product with a water environment."

Even Fender Musical Instruments, the Brea-based guitar maker that usually runs ads featuring big-name musicians such as Eric Clapton, has done an about-face. Its most recent print campaign for its acoustic guitar shows a shirt-less musician only from the neck down, playing a Fender guitar.

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