Ad Report Card: Un-Spokesmanlike Conduct

Commentary about business and finance.
Aug. 13 2001 11:30 PM

Ad Report Card: Un-Spokesmanlike Conduct

Some ad campaigns don't make a big impression immediately. They become noticeable, to me anyway, simply by hanging around for so long. They wear me down, until finally, after seeing the nth variation on a given spot, I wonder why it is this campaign persists. Is it working? Or is it simply surviving?

The other day, for instance, I saw another one of those 7 UP ads featuring Orlando Jones. There have been about eight of these, all variations on a theme. You can see them at 7 UP's (Flash-heavy) Web site. Once there, click on the image of Jones' face ("The man who makes 7 UP"), and a window will open with links for all the spots (click on the pictures for the streaming version, the words if you want to download an ad).

The ads: The one I saw the other day is called "Lookout Point." Jones, a comic actor who appeared most recently in Evolution ("Mostly unfunny"—Slate's David Edelstein), wanders around among cars full of couples making out, trying to get them interested in 7 UP. Here as in all the ads, he is clueless in a good-natured way that at times causes trouble for others—sort of a naive version of Tom Green. In another spot ("Race Car") he putters along slowly in a 7 UP-sponsored racer, reasoning that it's smarter to go slow so folks can see the logo. He causes a massive accident as other drivers swerve to avoid him. In earlier ads he visited a nudist colony ("Nice package," haw haw); painted a 7 UP logo on a basketball court in the middle of a game, causing players to crash to the hardwood; pegged a dog with a full can of soda; oversaw a taste test in which 7 UP triumphs over dish-washing liquid. Another spot, which the Web site says was "banned on network television," involved a swimming-pool fart joke.

The un-theory. To a certain extent, many of these ads poke fun at advertising itself—tropes like the taste test, pushing the product at a "popular hangout" (like Lookout Point, in this case), and slathering the logo on everything from race cars to basketball courts. The ads all end with the slogan, "Make 7 UP Yours," which is also sort of a jokey critique of the whole idea of slogans. Part of the humor, I guess, is that only someone as dopey as Jones' spokescharacter could believe in such foolishness anyway. Just as 7 UP was once the un-cola, Jones is sort of an un-spokesman, presiding over an ad campaign that finds ad campaigns inherently ridiculous.

Refreshing? But what's always nagged at me about these ads is that I can't figure out where that leaves me, the potential soda buyer. Am I supposed to conclude that I want to join Jones in his clueless embrace of 7 UP? Am I supposed to be amused or appalled at the mayhem his branding antics cause on the race track? Or is it all just supposed to be so rip-roaring hilarious that I'll want to align myself with 7 UP's savvy marketers? Beats me. Maybe there's no right answer, and the only message is an un-message. Is that a good idea, or even an idea at all? I suppose you could say I'm unconvinced.

Rob Walker is a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and Design Observer and the author of Buying In.