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Where's The Pitch?

The new breed of TV commercial is so cool they wouldn't dream of screaming slogans--they know what that remote is for. But it can be hard to tell where the programs stop and the ads begin.

May 03, 1998|Paul Brownfield | Paul Brownfield is a Times staff writer

Jerry Seinfeld is onstage in London, and he's bombing.

". . . so I got off the elevator, cut in line and said, 'What is this, the seventh inning stretch?' "

Silence. The trouble isn't his jokes, Seinfeld thinks, it's the language barrier. Why not hang out a bit, spend some time with the British people, get to know the local expressions?

Adventures ensue. Riding in a cab, Jerry thinks he sees the Queen Mother. He herds sheep. He plays cricket. He eats too much sausage. But by the end of it all, he's speaking like an honest-to-God Brit, and back onstage his jokes kill, even though he's saying them in a dialect he himself doesn't understand.

Is it "Seinfeld" the show or "Seinfeld" the ad? Because the story only takes 30 seconds to tell, the answer is Seinfeld the ad. But who can tell anymore, the way commercials look like music videos, dramatic series, sitcoms, feature film previews--look, in other words, like anything but commercials.

In fact, while "Seinfeld" the series is set to leave the air May 14, "Seinfeld" the commercials will continue at least into the summer, as the comedian shoots new spots for American Express.

Cloaking a hard-sell message in the soothing image of a celebrity is a tactic as old as TV advertising itself, but the making of the Seinfeld ads reveals how much the line is blurring between the TV commercial and the TV program. In the age of the cable boom and the multi-channel viewer, commercials strive to be part of a seamless mix of seductive and slick images--an attempt, in effect, to eliminate the traditionally jarring experience of the commercial break.

"I often say that it's a mistake to think you're just competing with other commercials," says David Apicella, creative director at Ogilvy & Mather, the New York ad agency that does the Seinfeld American Express ads. "I think you're competing with everything else on television."

To that end, advertising agencies are hauling out every gimmick they can think of--recurring lizards playing out-of-work actors (Budweiser), Claymation baseball heroes (Babe Ruth and Reggie Jackson in a Lipton Brisk ad) and sometimes, as in the case of Seinfeld, characters lifted fully formed from their popular sitcoms--to condition viewers to see commercials as part of the programming mosaic.

Not only does Seinfeld have final script approval of the American Express commercials, but he conducts story meetings and pitch sessions, Apicella says.

"We do it sort of the way his show is done," Apicella says. "We pitch concepts to him and then we settle on a half dozen and we write those with him."

On the one hand, Seinfeld's involvement is testimony to his interest in the advertising field (in a recent Vanity Fair profile, he even floated the idea of opening his own boutique agency). But it also shows how much ad-making has come to resemble the process of making network TV.

A September 1997 Los Angeles Times poll underscored the mandate for advertisers: In the survey, four in 10 men said they always or frequently change channels when a commercial comes on; 28% of women said they did too.

And so, commercials have adopted the look and feel of the shows themselves, trying to create what Clay Williams, a creative director at the Venice ad agency TBWA-Chiat/Day, calls "a seamless transition between the stuff you're tuning into to watch and the commercial."

Commercials for ESPN's "SportsCenter" resemble the parodying tone of "Saturday Night Live" skits. A dancing baby goes from Internet icon to Ally McBeal's imagination to pitch-infant for Blockbuster Video. Nike uses "Bittersweet Symphony," a popular song by the rock group the Verve, to turn a shoe commercial into a music video. An ad campaign for Levi's jeans bears a striking resemblance to MTV's Generation X docudrama "The Real World."

Any wonder, then, that the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences inaugurated an Emmy for commercials last year, with the first winner an HBO spot in which chimpanzees spoke lines from classic films including "The Godfather" and "Network"?

To be sure, the viewing audience is still bombarded by commercials done earnestly--straightforward, consumer-oriented pitches for deodorant, nasal spray and medical care.

And some products may be parody-proof: The day of the tongue-in-cheek feminine hygiene product ad is, blessedly, light years away.

But advertising agencies that do things the old way are confronting a new reality. As generations of young people enter the prized 18- to 49-year-old demographic, commercials will have to adapt to the way they receive information through television.

"A lot of it has to do with the fact that they don't have the same kind of linear way of receiving advertising [as older people]," says Brian Bacino, creative director at the San Francisco-based ad agency Foote Cone and Belding, which experimented recently with a six-part, mini-film ad campaign for Levi's jeans.

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