Dot.Coms Ditch The Flying Gerbils

Their ads try something new: Being straightforward

It certainly is a switch from the in-your-face ads that seem to be a requirement for companies. On Nov. 15, Inc. trotted out new TV spots for its online-shopping emporium that evoke the days of Lawrence Welk and Mitch Miller--a sweater-clad men's chorus sings chirpy songs of Christmas cheer. It's 1963 all over again--including hues not seen since color-TV was round. Only the wacky lyrics reflect the send-up: " has tons of toys...Every ton weighs 2000 pounds...That's a lot of toys."

This could be a happy sign for viewers who have been subjected to flying tortoises, b.o. jokes, and all manner of assault humor that has been harnessed to make fledgling Web brands stand out. Internet companies are now realizing what traditional enterprises have known for years: Obnoxious ads may be remembered, but they don't always lead to sales. "The shock-value ads get people's interest, but they alienate them in their gut," says Jaleh Bisharat, Amazon's vice-president of marketing.

"NEW TRADITION." Not that wholesome has taken over. You can still see a naked guy answering the door for a pizza delivery ( or a young executive dropping his cell phone in a urinal (AltaVista). "Many [dot.coms] are being driven by the desire to go public, so they're more interested in getting noticed immediately and driving traffic to their sites than they are in building a brand," says Susan Pinkwater, president and CEO of @tmosphere Interactive, a division of ad agency BBDO.

But as online outfits try to find audiences beyond GenXers, they could follow Amazon's example--stressing the usefulness of its service, with just a bit of humor. "As online shopping goes mainstream, people will identify more with a company that relays that attitude," Bisharat says. "We've made a very conscious effort to present shopping online as a new tradition for everybody, not just the wired, trendy person."

CNET Inc., the popular information-technology site, made a striking about-face after its first TV campaign failed to get much response from the target audience--the less technically savvy consumers. It scrapped a $10 million TV campaign two months after its launch. The company scrambled to remake a new campaign in a weekend, using real people who were recruited off the street. The spots are stark with no dialogue; the actors simply wear T-shirts representing the site and its different products and services. Through pantomime, the consumer is led to make the right purchasing decisions.

"In the beginning, our television advertising was intended to pique interest, which it did, but it was always our intention to change the content," says Annie Williams, CNET's senior vice-president of marketing. "Now the objective is to show people how they can use [the sites]." has also moved to a kinder, gentler message--even parodying its earlier excess. Last year, the company's TV spots depicted a gerbil being shot out of a cannon into a brick wall. "We want you to remember our name, That's why we've decided to fire gerbils out of this cannon," a spokesman explained. The sign-off graphic advised offended viewers to send complaints to the online computer and electronics retailer's Web site. On Nov. 18, Outpost started running spots featuring Martin Mull. He appears with gerbils and cannons, but nobody gets hurt. This year's message is more conventional: offering free overnight shipping service. "Our marketing campaign has shifted completely from `Look Ma, no hands' advertising into `Here's what we do, here's why it's important," Outpost CEO Bob Bowman says.

Some Web advertisers are even putting on spots that any packaged-goods company could love. Working with agency Fallon McElligott in Minneapolis, came up with a campaign that informs and entertains. In one spot set to a Mission: Impossible-like soundtrack, a woman relaxes in her bath as several jumpsuited people stealthily replenish her cache of diapers, soap, aspirin--even the bubble soap resting on the edge the tub. A voice-over delivers the message: "You have better things to do than go to the drugstore. Let the drugstore come to you."

That's a sign that e-commerce companies are starting to grow up. "Web companies are starting to learn that just because they're on television doesn't mean they're branding," explains Pinkwater. "As they mature and start figuring out what they want to be, we're starting to see some commercials that make sense." Or as Bowman says, "Our brand has to stand for something, and it can't stand for gerbils."