High-tech ads that offend your mother

An executive fires a gerbil from a cannon, splatting it against a wall. A college student belches out the alphabet.

An executive fires a gerbil from a cannon, splatting it against a wall. A college student belches out the alphabet. A medical patient—bent over—asks his proctologist for computer buying advice just as the doc's slippery finger plunges . . . well, you get the idea.

These are not pranks dreamed up by the trombone section in your daughter's eighth-grade band. They are not federally funded performance art. In fact, they're multimillion-dollar advertising campaigns financed by some of the world's leading high-tech visionaries. Dot-com marketing has become a school-yard shouting match. No bodily function is too vulgar, no pubescent gag too moronic, as long as the ad steals attention from the thousands of other Internet startups crowding the airwaves.

Our national culture has enjoyed nobler moments. Remember Apple Computer's 1984 Super Bowl commercial, which presaged an epic revolution in technology? You can now look forward to Super Bowl 2000, which will feature a lot of dot-com fart jokes.

We'll leave cultural critiques to Oprah and to the freaky fringe of the Republican Party. The $755 million question is whether stunt marketing really works.The answer lies in the particulars.

Fib, then wink. The trick here is to defy viewers' expectations -- even with a blatant lie -- then let them in on the gag. An ad for Monster.com, the Internet job-finding service, opens with a group of children solemnly pledging to spend their lives in boring, dead-end jobs in which they will forever suck up to the boss. A Discover brokerage ad features a jovial tow-truck driver who casually mentions that he owns a small island nation thanks to his success as an online trader. Verdict: yawn. The message is convoluted and it begs viewers to buy into tooth-fairy promises.

Get naked. Bid.com runs ads featuring a seminude model who urges you to "shop naked." Visa and Yahoo encourage online shoppers to "go naked to the mall." And Mark Breier, chief executive of Beyond.com, made a guest appearance on CNBC TV wearing only boxer shorts as a riff on his company's nude ads. Traffic to Beyond.com—and sales—briefly bumped upward after the airing. Verdict: a branding strategy that works for Hooters, not cybermerchants. What exactly are these companies selling?

Throw a frat party. Last summer Vault.com parked a truck in front of Morgan Stanley's headquarters with a billboard atop urging Stanley's employees to "bitch about your boss" on Vault's Web site. Bitch they did. The mischief reaped gallons of free ink and a segment on the local nightly news. Within a week of the stunt, Vault's traffic doubled to 5 million hits per month. The campaign's costs ran $2,100—the price of renting a truck and billboard for three days. Verdict: not exactly a case study for Harvard Business School but clever -- very clever.

Gross 'em out. Ecampus.com, a textbook seller, runs an ad showing a disheveled student furiously shoveling a can of beans into his mouth. He produces a lighter. In the next scene his apartment bursts into flames. Outpost.com's gerbils-from-a-canon shtick netted it 15,000 new customers. Verdict: Viewers will remember the sophomoric yuk-yuks; they'll forget the companies behind them.

Think low-rent. Real Names littered the Internet World trade show with bumper stickers stuck to stairwells and other odd places. Bigwords.com, a textbook seller, offered students a free paint job for their cars -- in the same bright orange as its company logo. Waby.com, an Internet radio station, posted placards in the lawns around ExciteAtHome, Net scape, and Yahoo. Verdict: Is this really what you wanted to do with your career?

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