'New wave' advertising trend draws mixed reviews

It's called ''Garden,'' although most American consumers wouldn't know that. What they would know, if they happened to be watching television recently, is that they saw rapid shots of a sea of piano keys, an excrutiatingly manicured garden, a woman wearing a red suit, the shadow of a man, a tall pointy building and an airplane. All this is accompanied by a background rendition of the song, ''I Don't Want to Set the World on Fire.''

This type of machine-gun-fire imagery is meant to sell perfume, specifically Chanel No. 5.

And by some accounts it is. According to industry experts, the Chanel commercial is part of a new multimillion dollar ad campaign - nothing to sniff at.

But more to the point, this highly unusual ad is part of a burgeoning trend of television commercials that some observers say is revamping the state of the industry right before America's eyes. However, others within the industry - most notably market researchers - are less sanguine about the phenomenon, calling it heavy handed on the visual imagery and not necessarily any more effective at the cash register. Still others say the new ads represent disturbing societal trends.

It's called ''new wave,'' or ''new mood,'' advertising. If you've seen it, you probably remember it, which is exactly what the advertisers want.

Apparently much of the public loves it. And if the public loves it, then the companies that make the ads are likely to love it as well. From its humble beginnings back in December 1979, when Chanel launched its first new-wave ad entitled, ''Share the Fantasy,'' new wave has become the trademark of more than a dozen advertising companies. Everyone from Lincoln-Mercury to Royal Crown to Avon and Magnavox has jumped on the new-wave bandwagon. And more companies seem destined to follow.

Some industry observers are crediting the phenomenon with bringing about a period of renewed vitality the like of which has not been seen since the ''golden age'' of commercials of the 1960s. But others are already calling the trend passe or simply ineffective. Some have even gone so far as to label it merely a gimmick, and in some instances, just another way to sell a product using sex. Market researchers tend to explain away the phenomenon as merely creative people ''gone wild.'' But in the words of one advertising director, ''Never has so much press been given to an advertising technique.''

In a word, it's a lot like new-wave music - wild, uninhibited, and unabashedly strange with its quick-cut editing, bright primary colors, bands of light, optical illusions, and unusual music. The trend is largely used in television advertising because the slick, captivating effect derives from its synergistic qualities. A static print ad simply does not capture the plethora of rapid-fire images that characterizes new-wave commercials.

Some within the industry are hyping the new ads as a ''return to the basics'' - suggesting that a commercial should be simple and clear in its approach, that the ''product is the hero.'' Others laud the new advertising breed because it causes a product to stand out from the rest of the herd. Advertisers like to use the words ''high awareness level,'' and ''good recall,'' and ''cutting through clutter.'' But for Mr. and Mrs. Consumer in front of the television, it simply means they are likely to remember the ad because it's different.

The style originally sprang up in Europe about a decade ago, and it appeared in the United States a few years later, when the directors of the foreign commercials came to work here. In fact, many of them are better known in the US for their feature-length films than for their commercials - directors such as Ridley Scott, who shot the Chanel ads and directed ''Alien'' and ''Blade Runner.''

Experts say it is largely these continental and British roots that give the ads their exotic look. Some observers describe it simply as a less-than-subtle sexual sales pitch. Home-grown American-style commercials traditionally rely on logic and words to sell their products, not lush, quick-cut photography. One only need think of Chrysler chairman Lee Iacocca barking his consumer command: ''If you can find a better car, buy it.''

Whether the sales technique is a narrative vignette, a star endorsement or a hidden-camera testimonial, American advertisements generally appeal to the consumer in a rational, step-by-step process: Use this detergent because it will make your clothes cleaner; this car will give you unsurpassed gas mileage; these golf clubs are the best because Jack Nicklaus uses them. And nearly all the ads have incorporated certain, general rules:

* You must show the product within the first five seconds.

* You must explain what the product does for the viewer from start to finish.

* You must show a person speaking, not a disembodied ''voice-over.''

* You should use spoken, not sung, messages.

But now, new-wave ads, with their flying veils, white spheres, and pursed red lips, come along and not only shoot down all that traditional Yankee logic, they completely disregard it. About the most logical point being made in these other-world commercials is ''if you use this product - be it shoes, perfume, car , or soft drink - you can enter this fantasy world,'' a disconcerting attitude to some viewers.

Most people in the ad business credit Chanel and its ad to ''share the fantasy'' with being among the very first new-wave ads to successfully appear this side of the Atlantic. After several years of using a traditional star-endorsement campaign - in Chanel's case that star was quintessentially French film actress Catherine Deneuve - the fragrance company unveiled its new and totally-unlike-anything-ever-seen-in-America advertising in 1979.

The 30-second spot featured not a known personality but a swimming pool, a woman in a bathing suit, and some very ripply music by composer Vangelis, who has since written the score for the film ''Chariots of Fire.'' No one even mentioned the word Chanel until the very last seconds of the ad. In fact, most of the talking done during the commercial consisted of a single evocative line: ''I am made of blue sky . . . and golden light . . . and I will feel this way forever.'' In the words of one market-research professor, ''What was Chanel up to?'' But another market researcher adds, ''You can't sell perfume on any sort of clinical data about what it will do for the user, so you have to use imagery and sometimes that gets exotic.''

Chanel spokeswoman Suzanne Urban says: ''That ad was one of the first new-wave ads in the country. And it was meant to be surrealistic, to communicate a fantasy. We were trying to represent a mood, to indicate the creative mind. To say, perhaps if you use Chanel No. 5, you'll feel a little bit differently.''

The ad apparently made a number of advertising executives feel a bit differently, too - about their own techniques. And it didn't take long before other agencies, namely Young & Rubicam (Y&R), the country's largest ad agency, turned their own creative heads in a new direction. By October 1980, Y&R had come up with a series of 30- and 60-second new-wave spots for their Lincoln-Mercury account that had the look and feel of surreal science-fiction films.

With more Vangelis music, a large white sphere inexplicably adrift in a desert, and a disappearing mountain lion, the ads for Lincoln-Mercury's new Lynx car seemed postively apocalyptic - just the thing, said account executives, to announce a new fuel-efficient, front-wheel-drive car totally unlike anything the Detroit automaker had ever produced. As the ads themselves proclaimed, ''Something is about to happen to the American automobile.'' Something has already happened to the advertising.

The old unwritten rules governing auto ads - soft lighting, outdoor vegetation, a running shot of the car, smiling people of the ''right'' age and economic bracket - were completely gone. And there was nary a mention of gas mileage, rustproofing, or repair rates: You are standing on a moonscape in an uncertain time.

''Uncertain'' is how some market researchers describe their response to the new ads. ''The new Lincoln ads are a little more arty and upscale than Ricardo Montalban standing in front of a forest talking about a car,'' says David Lambert, a Case Western Reserve Univeristy marketing professor, ''but I'm not sure it sells cars any better. These type of 'image' ads don't give the consumer any real information, which is what they need to make a big auto purchase.'' Lincoln-Mercury officials disagree. In fact, they insist their new campaign was so successful that they sold every Lynx they could make and experienced a rise in overall sales during 1982, when other domestic-automaker sales were decidedly down.

The last of the original ''big three'' new-wave ads to come rolling down the airwaves was the Diet Pepsi ''Now you see it, now you don't'' campaign that first aired in January 1981. The company that brought America the ''Pepsi Generation'' broke its own mold of advertising based on puppy dogs, car washes, and family fun with a totally new campaign, featuring frosty-looking shots of the product interspersed with quick-cut shots of slim, faceless bodies. The commercials had a sophisticated high-fashion look to them - like a rapid succession of glamorous still photos. And indeed each scene had been set up as a still shot - using obviously fake sets, painted backdrops, and harsh, unnatural light.

Unlike Lincoln-Mercury, which used its new-wave commercials to announce a new product, Pepsi was looking for a totally new look for an old product. ''Our new Diet Pepsi spots are designed to cut through the clutter of look-alike soft-drink advertising,'' says Alan Pottasch, senior vice-president of creative services. The real key to the ad, company heads say, is the faceless quality of the people, or rather bodies, used in the commercial. While some have questioned the rather obvious sexual imagery used in the ad, Pepsi officials deny any such intent. ''We wanted the viewer to concentrate on our weight-maintenance message by focusing on those parts of the body where consumers are most concerned about weight gain,'' says Pepsi's Norman Sylvester, a senior advertising vice-president. ''And we found that if you used faces, people tended to look at their eyes and not their bodies.''

Within the advertising industry, the new Diet Pepsi, Chanel, and Lincoln-Mercury ads are considered not only the first but also among the best ads in the new-wave breed. Pepsi's and Lincoln-Mercury's spots have won several awards. Yet not everyone is hastening to enter this gossamer other world of new-wave ads despite the cries of delight from the advertising people who concoct the commercials. Market researchers in particular have voiced doubts about the ads' sales effectiveness.

''These ads really aren't a new phenomenon,'' says Howard Cogan, an Ithica College communications professor and head of his own ad agency. ''They're just the result of creative people trying out new techniques. Many advertising gurus say the place of all advertising is to be mildly irritating. Ads like Mr. Whipple sure aren't winners except at the cash-register.''

Andrew Mitchell, professor of marketing at Carnegie Mellon agrees: ''Creative people tend to be trendy. They just love to jump on the bandwagon if they can convince their clients that sales figures can increase with the new ads. But a successful ad must do two things. It must first get your attention, and then, secondly, do something with that attention. And new-wave ads seem to be better at the former rather than the latter. Do we need verbal rather than visual reasons to buy something? For some products we do. For example, autos need to be sold on their m.p.g and repair rates, and the highly visual, mysterious new-wave ads just don't offer enough information to the consumer. What are the surrealistic Lincoln-Mercury ads telling the consumer? That the car is advanced? I just don't know, and I don't think the average viewer knows either.''

But other observers raise even redder flags. Gerald Lukeman, president of ASI Market Research, one of the top 10 market-research companies in the country, discounts the claim that new-wave ads are highly memorable. ''I have seen unimpeachable evidence that says people don't remember the (new-wave) commercials,'' Mr. Lukeman says. ''Style doesn't have anything to do with memorability. It has much more to do with an ad's relevancy, to the extent that it meets a real need, or simply brand-name reinforcement.''

Yet the real issue, Mr. Lukeman says, ''isn't new wave or not new wave, but what's going on underneath. A lot of people in this industry think of the trend as 'hot' as opposed to 'cool.' But it's not, it's highly cerebral, intellectual, very controlled and functional. All the new graphics and hues are just the surface. Underneath I detect an ambiguity and unwillingness to make clear-cut decisions, a sense of alienation in relationships.'' Such traits, the researcher says, are only the latest statements that advertising, like art, makes about us as a society. That, he maintains, is the real significance of new-wave ads.

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