Who was that masked adman?

The afternoon belonged to tennis. We had just expertly adjusted our sweat-band and snapped on the television set to the US Open when, alas, an ad sneaked across the screen with the guile of a drop shot and the sheer impudence of a top-spin lob.

If our addled senses did not deceive us, this is a fair summary of the surrealistic little commercial we witnessed:

A young woman stands in profile, with her conspicuously clean hair blowing free - all in the right direction. You can practically smell the fragrance.

A shampoo ad, we surmised, impatiently fidgeting in preparation for the next game - following, of course, the obligatory lather-up scene.

Close, but no soap. There's water all right. The young woman, it now appears, is looking out over a body of water toward a young man sculling in a boat. The boat rides low, as if laden to the gunwales with cargo.

Aha! That's it! Frozen fish dinners, we cried to a fellow viewer. We may not have mastered the backhand smash, but they don't fool us twice with an ad.

Wrong again, and in our mini-match with the ad, we're now down, love-30. OK. Don't panic. It's twilight, and growing more twilight by the second as the young man draws closer, sort of squinting at the shore.

Got it! Flashlight batteries!

But our lad lands without the help of so much as a sponsor's match and somehow stumbles through the murk to confront the young woman. He bears her, as on a tray, his devotion - and then there's this something else he's carrying behind his back. He produces his gift: a puppy.

Of course! A dog food ad!

But no. As everybody else in the world has known all along, the message-of-importance we were witnessing came from a shirt manufacturer.

The chap was certainly wearing a shirt, sort of plaid, sort of reddish. But everything in the ad was sort of reddish, and at the time, the man's shirt seemed the least of it.

We returned to tennis at last, where shirts and sneakers and racquets are clearly, even crudely blazoned by manufacturers' names for the benefit of close-up cameras. But we couldn't forget that oblique commercial, filmed as subtly as a scene from ''Tess'' or ''The French Lieutenant's Woman'' - obsessed with almost everything but the substantive selling of a shirt.

Would the shirt have shrunk if our hero had fallen overboard?

Did a tight feeling occur in the shoulder blades when he bent to get in or out of the boat?

Was the collar kind and gentle to his neck?

None of these important shirt-questions were answered.

Similar ads are appearing with fashionable frequency on television. Horses canter along misty beaches like a scene out of ''Equus'' in order to sell, with the most reluctant, the most minimal mention of product . . . who remembers what? Perfume? Designer jeans? Coffee?

To be so sublimely subliminal can worry those of us who remember when a soft-drink manufacturer looked you squarely in the eye and sang out in no uncertain terms: ''Da-da dum-dum hits the spot, Twelve full ounces - that's a lot!''

Nobody got confused that maybe one was being invited to buy shoe polish, we can assure you of that.

We've complained as much as anybody about the ''hard'' sell, but does the sell have to get this ''soft''?

At the rate things are going, we figure the ultimate ad will appear about this time next year. It will feature lots and lots of sun in the treetops. There will be a white farmhouse standing in the middle distance, and - sure, why not? - a couple of horses. A mysterious he will look meaningfully at an unidentified her. Mozart's 40th will play on the soundtrack.

The ad will roll to its conclusion without hint of a sponsor. At the end, a voice-over will declare this to be the first sell-yourself ad in television history, and invite the viewers to apply its free-floating persuasion to a cause of his or her choice - no-hole socks perhaps, or voter registration.

We haven't yet made our decision on whom we intend to sponsor as sponsor, but we're standing on tiptoe in the twlight, surrounded by horses, and we can hardly wait.

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