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Focus : The Buzz on Coffee Talk : TASTER'S CHOICE GIMMICK OF A CONTINUING COMMERCIAL WORKS

January 02, 1994|TED JOHNSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When we last left off, the couple looked out at the Eiffel Tower in their Paris hotel room.

As the sun sets, he marvels at the view, and the cup of coffee he's drinking.

"Is that all?" she asks.

"No," he says.

They kiss, and the screen fades to black.

That's where the folks at Taster's Choice left viewers hanging. That was six months ago, a lifetime in an era of short-attention spans. For more than three years, the couple's coy romance has tantalized viewers, even if it means waiting longer than a week to find out what happens next.

In the cluttered world of TV spots, these serialized commercials are a rarity. But with a touch of innuendo and romance, Taster's Choice has made it work.

"The amazing thing is, even though people don't know it is coming on the air, they are just as caught up in it as they would be a soap opera or a regular program," says Heidi Noorany, product manager at Nestle, which owns Taster's Choice. "People are bombarded with media messages, so this was definitely very different."

Sales of Taster's Choice have climbed 10% since the first spot. In the last 18 months, the company got 1,500 letters. And 15,000 people entered a contest last summer in which they suggested what should happen next.

The latest spot will debut on "Mad About You" this week. The only clue that Nestle will offer: The romance takes an unexpected turn, one that will allow the story line to continue for quite a while.

"We have no plans to stop it," Noorany says. "We'll go on as long as the public likes it."

The couple, played by British actors Anthony Head and Sharon Maughan, first debuted in Great Britain in 1987 to advertise Nescafe Gold Blend, a similar instant coffee. They became such a sensation there that a book was published, and plans were once in the works for a movie based on the couple. So McCann-Erickson, Nestle's advertising agency, sought similar success in the United States.

Still, "We didn't know it would go beyond the first episode" in the United States, Noorany says. "But we were immediately inundated with calls from viewers, wondering what would happen next."

The chemistry has worked so well that many viewers assumed the couple were married in real life. Not so.

"We both have extremely happy home lives of our own," Head says. "But there is a spark I see on camera that you don't notice on the set. It's quite extraordinary."

Both actors have appeared on talk shows, and with only five minutes, 25 seconds of air time so far, they're instantly recognized on the street. One amused man handed Maughan a jar of coffee.

"People will come up to me and say, 'You're the woman!' " says Maughan, who lives in Los Angeles with her husband, actor Trevor Eve. "I'll go into a supermarket and people will direct me right to the coffee aisle."

The ads also helped them gain roles in movies and on stage. Maughan had a supporting role in "Another Stakeout" last summer, and has directed stage plays on visits back to London. Head, who lives in London, appears in the upcoming Showtime movie "Royce," with Jim Belushi.

"The commercials have done so well because there is a heightened expectancy," Head says. "But then you think 'looking forward to an ad?' It's ridiculous. It's a commercial. But it is very successful marketing, and it's not overkill."

Not that the product gets lost in the story. A narrator invites consumers to "Savor the sophisticated taste of Taster's Choice." The couple often take a sip of coffee. In the most recent spot, the woman meets the man on the streets of Paris, and almost immediately hands him a jar.

If it was laundry detergent they were passing, it probably wouldn't work, Noorany says.

"We found out that when people drink coffee, it is often on a date, when they are talking in a conversation," she says. "It really plays a role in getting to know each other."

There have been few copycats.

"Those are things that are very hard to carry off," says Steve Rabosky, creative director at Chiat/Day Inc. Advertising, responsible for the Energizer bunny campaign. "People don't normally watch a commercial for a plot."

Instead, it's a matter of matching the right product with the right story line. The latest Energizer ads borrow from the great movie cliffhangers, featuring evil villains and Western heroes (including the Lone Ranger), special effects and monsters, providing plenty of comic foils for the bunny.

"I approached the production like a movie," says Frank Oz, the famed Muppeteer who directed the spots. "There is that feel to it, but the challenge is that you have to do it all within a matter of seconds."

In one spot, which debuted in November, the executives of the fictitious Supervolt Batteries plot to destroy the bunny. The Supervolt chairman, with pointy eyebrows, shows King Kong a sign that reads "bunny equals banana," and gets the famous movie beast ready to crush the bunny. Then, "To be continued" flashes on screen.

"Sometimes you watch a commercial and don't remember the product," Rabosky says. "But here, the bunny is central to the premise. It's a no-brainer for the consumer."

Unlike Taster's Choice ads, the audience need only wait within the same commercial break to find out what happens next: King Kong climbs up the Empire State Building, trying to catch the bunny at top. But Kong is stopped when a femme fatale shuts a window on his foot.

And of course, the bunny keeps going and going and going ...

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