Babes in virtual land are advertisers' new toys

There is this commercial.

We see a young couple at the movies. She weeps openly, as he looks painfully bored. Suddenly, a man dressed in a coyote suit armed with a megaphone walks up to him and calls him a wimp for caving in to his girlfriend's demands to see a tearjerker movie when he would much rather be with the "woman" who suddenly appears at his side, the buxom, gun-toting favorite of the electronic gamer crowd, Lara Croft.

In the final scene, we see the tightly clad virtual Lara asking about the banging noises she hears at the boyfriend's door. It's the confused "real" girlfriend wanting to be let in. He tells Lara to ignore it and they return to playing her game on the computer.

It's a clever commercial with an interesting message - why be with real people and all their hang-ups when you can play Tomb Raiders with a real babe who likes to shoot people and doesn't make you go to stupid movies. Cool.

The above commercial is obviously a fantasy playing off young male fantasies - we know it's a commercial. The new ad campaign for Calvin Klein's CK One unisex cologne goes one big step further. On all the ads featuring the 10 models chosen for this campaign, there are individual e-mail addresses. And when you e-mail one of them, the model in question writes you back with personal details from his or her life. Well, sort of.

The people writing the e-mail replies are the creation of the New York advertising firms Wieden & Kennedy, and CRK Advertising. The "personal" lives are all part of the campaign to get you to buy the cologne. Tia and Robert and Anna - the first of the 10 to appear in ads - are nothing more than, well, overpaid models. Their words are probably written by young, clever, poorly paid staffers of the ad companies.

Klein has shown himself ready to use any image to sell his products to the youth market, from ravaged youths who look as if they've just come off a heroin binge, to the underaged, Lolita-like sexuality of Kate Moss. In this case, Klein has homed in on young people's fascination with two popular cultural pastimes of the '90s - the soap opera and e-mail.

The messages are, so far, quite tame. I dropped Tia, the "recently single working-woman," an e-mail. Here's part of her answer to me, after telling me how exciting the fashion shoot was and how masterful Robert, the director, seemed: "From now on, a vow: NO MEN. No romantic entanglements, serious or otherwise. Just a simple, confusion-free existence. I'll come straight home from work, watch videos, read a few magazine articles, then go to sleep and have chaste dreams. It's the only way. Where's my head, I almost forgot the biggest news of all! I'm scheduled to get my dry cleaning back tomorrow!!"

The idea is, apparently, that by getting hooked on the daily life of your favorite model, you'll also get hooked on their favorite cologne. It is the ultimate, rather eerie, extension of one-to-one advertising. It falls into the quickly growing category of "There is no there there" that includes sportscasts that place ads on the TV that are not actually at the ball park, race track, etc. It's another example of the siren call of the virtual world that wants us to abandon the messy physical world of complicated relationships and dead-end jobs and bond with beautiful fashion models and handsome directors who have one real problem.

They aren't real.

* You can e-mail Tom Regan at tom@csmonitor.com

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