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The Message Is the Marvel

“Dotcom advertising has launched a creative revolution. It has created a new Renaissance for advertising.”

Where have all the stores gone? What’s happened to the products? Have i-business and e-commerce surmounted traditional retailers and planted the flag for a dotcom dynasty? No, not yet, but you certainly couldn’t tell by watching TV. Or tuning the radio dial. Or passing a billboard.

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Advertising glorifies and encourages competition — that much has been true since Pepsi first faced off against Coca-Cola on national television. But in this age of dotcom delirium, the fight to capture the attention of the masses has far surpassed the efforts of Spuds McKenzie, Joe Isuzu, and the tastes great/less filling warriors. By all accounts, today’s ads have gone decidedly weird.

Take Amazon.com, for example. Before the 1999 holiday season, the online retailer went retro with a television campaign that featured unglamorous men in Santa hats singing off-key carols along with a bouncing ball — an unorthodox branding tactic that traditional bookstores likely would not touch. Likewise, E-Trade.com shook up the investment world with a disturbing Super Bowl ad that featured two old men in lawn chairs, a boom box, and a monkey leaping and chattering uncontrollably. The tagline read, “We just wasted $2 million. What are you doing with your money?”

Thanks to sheer creativity and, sometimes, bizarre techniques, startup companies are capturing the attention of television viewers, magazine readers, and Web users around the world. In the process, those dotcom startups — not to mention their caroling nerds, dancing monkeys, and smart-ass sock puppets — are also changing the advertising status quo.

“Dotcom advertising has launched a creative revolution,” says Marjorie Vallin, senior vice president of the American Advertising Federation. “It has created a new Renaissance for advertising.”

Going Bananas?

“If there’s a wacky index, maybe we’re indexing higher on wackiness these days,” says Dick Hackeberg, a 30-year veteran of the advertising industry who is now the VP of marketing for BigWords.com — an online textbook company known for its over-the-edge television ads.

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The BigWords.com ads feature Tom Green, of MTV’s “The Tom Green Show,” a comedian known for his psychotic antics. In one of the spots, Green wears an orange jumpsuit, hops up and down in front of a fake desert island holding a gigantic fake banana, and screams into the camera: “I’m not selling bananas. I’m selling BigWords.com.”

Bizarre? Yes. But BigWords.com says college kids love it, and as long as the commercial hits the target audience of 18-24 year olds, nothing else matters.

“‘Banana’ is weird,” says Matt Johnson, CEO of BigWords.com. “‘Banana’ is definitely a little edgier than most commercials, but I think if you can create fun and irreverent advertising that grabs attention without insulting viewers, then you’re going to win.”

Hello, My Name Is

For startup Internet companies, winning the name-recognition game is essential to survival. If the public can’t remember your name, they can’t click on your site, and that’s bad for business — partially because investors and potential Internet advertisers use traffic numbers to gauge the profitability and success of a site.

“Advertising has become so odd because every company feels the only way to achieve brand recognition is to be weirder than the last guy,” says Peter Beckman, president of The Ad Critic, an online publication that reviews commercials and comments on trends in advertising.

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E-trade.com, for example, banked on the value of shock and surprise when it set out to form a marketing plan for its Super Bowl advertisements. Disregarding convention and caution, the company told its agency — Goodby, Silverstein, & Partners — to let the creative juices flow. Believe it or not, a monkey jumping up and down in a T-shirt was exactly what the client had in mind.

“Dotcoms have made advertising inseparable from business strategy,” Vallin says, regarding the phenomenon of selling a company rather than just a product. “They have demonstrated that companies live and die on the altar of branding.”

David Thompson, VP of marketing for WebEx.com, was all too aware of the financial and strategical implications of an advertising campaign when his company began fashioning its brash, bold, and bizarre media deluge last year. The idea to plaster American’s most celebrated transvestite, RuPaul, across every WebEx.com advertisement came to Thompson in the shower. And he went with it — an outrageous campaign that he hoped would distinguish his startup from the gaggle. “We’re not only competing with our direct competitors,” he says. “We’re also competing for a share of the VC money that’s sloshing around and being turned into advertising dollars. It’s very difficult, today, to grab that mindshare.”

Expensive Habit

Rumors abound as to how much money startups are really sinking into advertising budgets. Guesses range from 10 to 70 percent. And while traditional companies may balk at such drastic financial measures, dotcoms realize that they must live dangerously in order to truly stand out.

“The reason startups make these outrageous returns on their investments is because they risk it all,” Thompson says. “Dotcoms must recognize advertising as art and advertising as a way to push the envelope because that’s a part of the game right now.”

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Regrettably, the messages behind many of today’s ads are getting lost as companies and agencies attempt to make an artsy splash. Only a few advertisers have found a winning formula.

Send.com is one startup company that has created an innovative — and successful — ad campaign that combines humor and information. Its radio and television ads — produced by Cliff Freeman, the company responsible for the “Where’s the beef?” zinger — feature The Giver, an unnamed smooth talker who buys gifts for people and then bumbles into hysterical predicaments. It’s amusing, it’s endearing, and it’s different.

The Giver has become such a hit that customers have called the company impersonating him and radio stations have asked The Giver to appear on the air. “It just became a personality of its own,” says Mike Lannon, CEO and founder of Send.com. “You can’t buy that kind of viral word-of-mouth marketing.”

Most important, however, is the relative ease and clarity of Send.com’s marketing message and offerings. In a world of Web abstraction, Send.com and its services are tangible. “The challenge is to get across a message in the middle of humor,” Lannon says. “It’s really important that people laugh and that they associate their laughter with your company.”

Partners in Prime ? Time

Different dotcom companies choose to broadcast their messages in different ways — some partner with big-time advertising agencies to ensure quality ads, while others choose small agencies that keep down costs and welcome more company input in the creative process.

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Pets.com, whose surly sock puppet has made the company a forerunner in brand recognition, works with TBWA Chiat Day while Ameritrade.com has hooked up with Ogilvy and Mather. CNET, whose commercials are among the most kooky, works with the much smaller, San Fransico-based Lagas Delany. Finally, WebEx.com has hired the home-grown agency Free Range Chicken Ranch. As VC firms continue to flood dotcoms with marketing money, companies like these will enjoy the freedom and power to challenge existing norms — and influence the look, feel, and thinking of traditional companies and their advertising campaigns.

“In some ways, dotcoms have remade David into Goliath,” Vallin says. “Small agencies can compete for clients that would have shunned them in the past. Big ideas are no longer only the province of Madison Avenue. The impact of these changes cannot be understated.”