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Elaborate Musical Commercials Make a Comeback


All singing! All dancing! All selling!

Television commercials that feature elaborate musical production numbers, long out of favor on Madison Avenue, are making a comeback. Big advertisers like Amazon.com, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Gap, PepsiCo, Procter & Gamble and Visa are offering viewers minimusicals with maxi-casts for products as disparate as books, shampoo, apparel, soft drinks, cleaners and credit cards.

Commercials that resemble scenes from MGM musicals were popular in the early days of television, when stars like Dinah Shore would perform the sponsors' spiels alongside the dancers and singers from their variety shows. The trend reached a peak three decades ago with spectacular spots for Contac cold capsules, Heinz Great American Soups and McDonald's, which emulated the extravagant productions Busby Berkeley created for Warner Brothers musicals.

But the spots tripped over their feet as the 1970's brought recession, inflation and a return to the no-nonsense hard-sell school of advertising, which frowned upon pitches meant primarily to entertain. The music of Broadway and Hollywood was replaced with rock songs intended to catch the ears of baby boomers as the dancers were sent back to the chorus line.

Now, as agencies return to entertainment as a tactic to appeal to consumers -- who must typically be cajoled into watching yet another commercial -- peddling through production numbers is enjoying a revival not unlike the second lives for the Volkswagen Beetle, "Mission: Impossible" and TV game shows.

"To say musical commercials were out of favor is putting it mildly," said Ted Sann, co-chief executive and chief creative officer at BBDO New York. "It was a discredited genre."

"But to go where no one else is going has a coolness all its own," he added.

For Visa, BBDO New York, part of the BBDO Worldwide unit of the Omnicom Group, created a paean to Broadway with Bebe Neuwirth, wearing her slinky "Chicago" costume, singing and dancing to "I've Got Rhythm." She is joined by performers clad for "Cats," "The Music Man," "The Phantom of the Opera" and "Saturday Night Fever."

And for the Mountain Dew soft drink sold by the Pepsi-Cola division of PepsiCo, BBDO New York produced a 60-second spot that updates Berkeley's over-the-top antics. The chorus boys and girls are recast with skateboarders and mountain-bike riders showing off extreme stunts, who are seen from above in vintage overhead camera shots.

"Our commercial is a page right out of that genre, and it's definitely by design," said Tim Fuhriman, assistant brand manager for the new Swiffer brand of household cleaner marketed by Procter, based in Cincinnati. His reference was to a spot in which actors dressed as soldiers sing and dance in a 1940's-style production number; they form patterns with Swiffer mops, which, glimpsed from above, resemble stars.

"We've had great response from consumers and the trade," Mr. Fuhriman said. "People are calling our '800' number to ask for copies of the lyrics." The commercial was created by the New York office of D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles, part of the B Com3 Group.

One reason extravaganzas are welcome again is that "they work very fast to capture the audience," which is crucial when "you only have a few seconds" before they change channels, said Alan Johnson, who supervised the choreography for spots based on the musical "West Side Story" that promoted the khakis and jeans sold by Gap.

"There's an older generation that loves 'West Side Story,' " said Mr. Johnson, who was a member of the Broadway cast in 1960, dancing to the choreography of Jerome Robbins that was recreated in the spots. "And there's a generation that has never experienced the show live, so it's new to them."

Mr. Sann, echoing Mr. Johnson's assessment of the reaction among younger consumers, said: "The kids are really responding. They're hearing music they just don't know and are responding on a gut level."

And the costs associated with staging elaborate musical spots, which daunted advertisers a generation ago, are becoming more manageable, Mr. Sann said, because of computer-generated images.

"With a green screen and post-production," he added, "it's much easier to do."

The trend is even traveling beyond TV. Web Attack, a conference sponsored last month in New York by Iconocast Inc., featured a musical, "King.com," which borrowed heavily from Berkeley and "King Kong" to bring to life the effect of the Internet on marketing.

"Our objective was to show that Internet conferences don't have to be boring," said Michael Tchong, editor and chief executive at Iconocast in San Francisco. "About 75 percent of the people who attended said they liked the musical elements."

Asked whether he would consider singing and dancing for subsequent conferences, Mr. Tchong replied: "Oh, yes, absolutely. For 2001, it's the circus."

So, to quote a lyric from the Heinz commercial -- created by Stan Freberg for Ann Miller, who performed atop a giant replica of a soup can -- "Let's face the chicken gumbo and dance, dance, dance!"

 

Stuart Elliott, The New York Times. July 14, 2000

Copyright © 2000 The New York Times. All rights reserved.

 

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