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No joke.

Last year, I wrote an article in TV Guide deploring the fact that there are no Nielsen ratings for advertisements. This means that there is no scientific methodology to determine how much the public likes or dislikes specific commercials. Whereas dismal television programs like Al Franken's Lateline or the atrocious Central Park West get canceled on the spot once it becomes obvious that the public hates them, TV ads that are roundly despised can hang around for months and months before someone has the good sense to pull the plug. Molson's dreary, idiotic beer ads featuring has-been Rick Moranis and his nitwit sidekick provide a perfect example: The joke ran out of gas a long time ago, yet the advertising campaign seemed to go on forever.

What most amazes me when I see an advertising campaign that is clearly not working is the absence of adult supervision. The obvious example is Miller Lite's catastrophic 1999 "Ask Dick" campaign that took irony to new levels of annoyingness. I loathed that offensive, mega-trendy campaign so much that even though I don't drink, I was willing to start just so I could not drink Miller Lite.

Consider another example. Last year, Fidelity Investments kicked off a high-powered campaign featuring legendary mutual fund manager Peter Lynch trading mutual fund gags with comics such as Don Rickles and Lily Tomlin. The ads, as I noted out in Barron's, were not bad, but the campaign had one glitch: By casting Lynch as the savant and Tomlin and Rickles as the idiots, Fidelity seemed to be saying, at least subliminally, that it viewed individual investors as nitwits.

Though this was obviously not the intention of the campaign, the ads seemed to be saying: Let the professionals handle your money, because you've got roughly as much intellectual firepower as Lily Tomlin. Or Don Rickles. In January, the campaign was replaced by a new one, featuring Peter Lynch minus the stand-ups. Fund sales have gone through the roof, with many observers applauding Fidelity for getting back to its knitting. My question remains: Where were the adults (not to mention the CEOs) when the ads were being made? Why was there no one on hand to tell the "creatives" that if you're looking for laughs, the stock market is the last place you're going to find them? Why wasn't there anyone lurking on the sidelines to remind the advertising people that most people who invest in the stock market are not, in fact, nincompoops?

The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind.

Another ad that completely befuddles me is currently being aired by the E-Trade on-line brokerage service. In it, a nebishy white-collar type is seen in his office, gazing at his computer screen. Suddenly, he sees a graph depicting recent activity in a stock he owns. The stock has gone right through the roof. The man runs upstairs to his boss's office and announces his resignation. He then returns to his cubbyhole to find that his stock has taken a massive nose dive. Now he runs back upstairs to beg for his job back. As the ad fades out, the viewer is told not to go overboard when investing on-line.

Much as I admire the candor, and perhaps even the humor, in this spot, I am baffled by E-Trade's decision to run it. What the ad is basically saying is that the stock market is a crapshoot, that stocks can vault into the stratosphere and then plummet back into the gutter in the flickering of an eye, that no matter how well your stocks are doing, you shouldn't quit your day job. Of course, all of this is true. The problem is: it's a downer.

Though the advertisement appears to be humorous, what it is actually saying is that if you're some pathetic loser trapped in a rabbit warren who dreams of escaping from this personal hell by getting rich in the stock market, then you're an even more pathetic loser than you seemed to be. It's commendable that E-Trade has warned customers to exercise caution; but it's also saying that the stock market can't make you rich enough to tell your boss to take this job and shove it. So what's the point? The whole appeal of on-line trading is that it's supposed to be such fun.

To my way of thinking, the best investing ads currently running are the ones starring Charles Schwab. These are the lugubrious black-and-white spots where the man who revolutionized the investment business through his discount brokerage service squints at the screen and says what his company is all about. The first time I saw these cinema verite ads, I hated them; I thought they made Schwab look like one of the attack-camera victims on 60 Minutes.

Now I love them. They're serious. They're informative. They're realistic. They don't have any truck drivers showing you photos of desert islands they bought with the money they made through their day trading accounts. They don't have any goofballs like Lily Tomlin trading quips with Peter Lynch. They just have Charles Schwab staring at a camera telling you that the stock market is a very serious place where it helps to have serious advice. He looks like the kind of guy who can give you that advice. He looks like an adult.

Joe Queenan is a regular contributor on business issues, corporate culture, and financial follies to Barron's and The Wall Street Journal.
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Copyright 1999, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:evaluating commercials; The Flip Side
Author:Queenan, Joe
Publication:Chief Executive (U.S.)
Article Type:Column
Date:Jul 1, 1999
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