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It Takes All Kinds: Quirky Ads Say There's a Place for Everyone Online

November 03, 1995|LINTON WEEKS | THE WASHINGTON POST

They're quirky, kinky, fast and in your face. They're supposed to tell the whole world, not just computer geeks, about that mysterious and much-hyped land called cyberspace.

But what do America Online's new national TV ads really say?

In one, a man in a tractor cap is sitting in his living room. He's staring into the extraterrestrial glow of his computer and poking at the keys with his index fingers. He's got a two-day beard, bad teeth and a psychotic grin. Behind him, across the room, a little girl in a pretty dress is slouched on a couch.

"See that, Sissy?" he says in a raspy voice. "I'm talking to some fellow in Washington, D.C. He's what they call . . . pro-NAFTA."

The camera moves to the little girl. Suddenly there's an explosion and the room is awash with a brilliant light. The kid doesn't twitch. "Maw," she calls out in a deadpan voice, "Paw done shot up the America Online again."

The AOL triangular logo fills the screen. The computer-generated male voice so familiar to AOL users says, "America Online. Welcome."

In another ad, antiquated TV actor Adam West moves across the screen dressed in a daffy red Ban-Lon shirt and silk scarf. His hands look so old. He looks so deranged. Behind him stands a large male nurse with a tray of medicine.

"As a super-hero," says West, who played Batman on TV long ago, "I use America Online's powerful e-mail system to keep tabs on my archenemies." He stares into the camera.

"Medication time, Mr. West," says the nurse.

"Aha!" says West, leaning forward. "My trusty sidekick."

Then the white screen, black-and-white logo and a humanless, humorless: "America Online. Welcome."

Welcome to what? America Online, the 10-year-old company that is the largest of its kind in the world, with more than 3.5 million subscribers, has traditionally stressed its desire to create a sense of community among those users. But the new ads seem to say welcome to a world full of nutty, deluded people who use America Online mostly for their own weird pursuits.

Ted Leonsis, president of America Online Services Co., explains the apparent dissonance this way: "We are creating an integrated campaign that has to break through the clutter." By clutter he means his competition--the other large, established on-line services such as CompuServe and Prodigy and the host of newcomers, including the Microsoft Network and AT&T's Interchange.

"People don't sign up for a sense of community," says Marty Cooke, creative director at TBWA Chiat / Day, the New York advertising agency that created the AOL ads. "What gets people on AOL is because there's something they want to check out. You sign up for information; you get into a community."

So far, America Online has approved 12 such spots, and scores more are on the way. "We did some research with members," Leonsis says. "What's interesting about America Online is what's interesting about people."

He says the ads are built around "stylized members or celebrities who have a quirkiness about them. The goal was to get recognized. But also to show a sense of humor and whimsy.

"What we found in our research," he says, "is that individual empowerment and a broad range of interests is why people initially go on-line, but having community is what seduces people and becomes the magical experience of being on-line. It is very difficult to articulate the power of community as a benefit of getting on-line."

*

Prodigy begs to differ. A competitor to AOL with more than 2 million members, it is also launching commercials that try to project the on-line experience.

One opens with a woman smashing her banjo on the highway.

A green bus glides up. The destination sign above the windshield reads "MUSIC." The doors fold open, and the bus driver is Barry White. He invites the distressed damsel aboard.

The bus is full of musicians of all stripes: a gospel singer, a young violinist, a horde of banjo pickers.

The woman, surrounded by others like her, takes comfort.

The camera fades and the screen reads "Prodigy. Whatever you're into."

The message is: Don't be frustrated. There are others like you. We're all bozos on the same bus.

AOL really pushes that bozo theme to the limit, though.

One more example: Peter McNeeley, the boxer who stayed in the ring with Mike Tyson for all of 89 seconds, is in a living room. There's a fire in the fireplace. He walks toward the camera. A portrait of a bare-knuckle boxer hangs over the mantle. Sports trophies line the shelves.

Dressed in a green T-shirt, with his name in large letters across his chest, McNeeley says, "Sports guys like me like all the great sports stuff on America Online. I like getting the latest scores."

And with that, his manager, Vinny Vecchione, blasts into the room, grabs McNeeley by the shoulders and hustles him away from the camera. "OK," Vecchione says, "the kid's had enough!"

Another member of the entourage grabs the camera and wrestles it to the floor. The fire, shown at a lopsided angle, continues to burn. "America Online. Welcome."

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