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Cracking the Code of Advertising

The tagline: "Welcome to the World Wide Wow."

The company: Dulles-based America Online Inc., a division of AOL Time Warner Inc., the world's largest media company.

The ads: The television commercials, created by ad giant BBDO New York, employ AOL's yellow cartoon running-man icon in two spots. In one, the mute icon is shown on an operating-room table while the voice-over says, "We can make him better, stronger, faster," mimicking the '70s TV show "The Six Million Dollar Man." In the other ad, the icon stars opposite lingerie-clad seductress Sharon Stone, who flops on her back on a bed, gasping, "That was the most amazing experience I ever had." The voice-over at the end of the ad says, "The new AOL for broadband is just a little sexier than you might have imagined."

The sell: AOL's troubled past has been well documented. Now, the future of the United States' No. 1 Internet provider depends on its ability to persuade its 35 million subscribers to upgrade to AOL Broadband, which combines enhanced AOL content with costlier high-speed Internet access. The commercials are the first efforts in a yearlong radio and television campaign for AOL Broadband that will cost upward of $150 million, said Len Short, AOL's vice president of brand marketing. "We need to get momentum fast where we've lost it," he said. As part of a $15 million radio ad buy, AOL has wired all 187 Infinity radio stations in the United States with broadband to deliver news and entertainment updates. The star of the television commercials will be the yellow icon, which will appear in different locales throughout the campaign, Zelig-like, and "develop a personality," Short said.

The read: The icon is an instantly recognizable image for AOL users, which are the commercials' primary targets. The humorous "Six Million Dollar Man" spot is effective because the pumped-up icon conveys the image of a faster, more robust Internet service; the rest of the commercials will be in this vein. The Sharon Stone ad, however, which kicked off the campaign during the Academy Awards broadcast, abandons message for flash and memorability. "It was a stunt to get visibility up," Short said. It's also a stunt that can cut both ways: Stone's romp with a faceless, two-dimensional cartoon may seem like fun to some; to others it might serve as a reminder of the anything-goes nature of the Internet.

The punch line: AOL hopes this campaign can prevent its broadband Internet service from doing what Stone does in the ad: going belly-up.

Posted on aef.com: April 14, 2003


Frank Ahrens, The Washington Post, April 9, 2003

Copyright © 2003 The Washington Post. All rights reserved.