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Nothing but net

E-commercials are taking over television–and revolutionizing the way products are pitched.

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Goodbye, energizer Bunny. Hell-oooo, alphabet-burping frat boy.

Anyone who’s turned on a TV in the last year has seen the revolution — the dot-com takeover of television’s commercial time. In the good old days — say, two years ago — new-media-related spots were novelties, relegated primarily to low-profile cable business channels. Now Net-related ads dominate the tube.

By the end of 1999, online companies will have spent an estimated $1.4 billion on TV-commercial time, a billion dollars more than what they shelled out in ’98. Even the highest-profile broadcast, the Super Bowl, has succumbed to the dot-coming influence: A quarter of the $2 million-per-30-second ads for the 2000 telecast on ABC have reportedly been gobbled up by e-companies. ”By now, [dot-com] businesses are the air we breathe,” says John Yost, cofounder and president of Black Rocket, the agency that created the groundbreaking Yahoo! campaign (remember the punk-rock quilter?). ”It’s impossible to [run] any kind of agency without their business.”

All of which has had a profound effect on the look and feel of our television-viewing experience. In these dot-com times, youth-driven edginess is de rigueur. Gone are the days when you could expect a word from your sponsor to come from a toilet-paper-squeezing grocer or a cuddly animated dough boy.

Today, when your favorite shows go to break, you’re more likely to see a nervous shopper receiving an unwanted anal probe in response to a computer question (CNET.com), a broker arguing with a pierced, tattooed Jesse Camp look-alike (Ameritrade), schoolchildren solemnly declaring downsized career goals — including ”I want to have a brown nose” (Monster.com) — a gigolo massaging the bunions of his sugar mommy (E*Trade), and of course, a college kid belching his ABCs (ecampus.com). ”You go in [to clients] with stuff that five years ago was edgy, and now it feels boring,” says Gerry Graf, who wrote the E*Trade spots for Goodby, Silverstein & Partners. ”The marketing people want you to push it as far as you can go. I mean, a guy jumping on a trampoline in a Speedo [in the E*Trade gigolo ad]? That’s crazy.”

Crazy…and confusing. In their rush to create hip spots geared to younger (thus more likely to be online) viewers, agencies have forsaken many of the traditional ad tenets and traded clarity for shock value. Remember that wacky spot in which gerbils were launched out of a cannon? Who was it for?

”It’s an outrageous ad, sure, but you have no idea what they sell,” notes DeVito/Verdi president Ellis Verdi, who created the burpy ecampus.com ads. ”In the service of getting attention, no one should dilute the basic principles of advertising.” (By the way, the gerbils were shills for Outpost.com, an electronics retailer.)

Still, the sheer momentum of the dot-com shift is irresistible. Already, some spots for non-Internet companies have adopted the deadpan voice and skewed wit of the e-commercials. An ad for a Motorola beeper service, in which a couple of garage attendants run into Yasmine Bleeth, then stall her as they covertly signal an army of Bleeth worshipers, clearly shows the influence of the e-commerce campaigns.

”I think of the ’60s as a time of [advertising] creativity and imagination,” notes Yost. ”But when all is said and done, this period has the potential to have a profound and much greater effect than any other time in advertising history.”

Still, the true legacy of the digital boom has yet to be seen. As it is, another wave of Net ads is beginning to move closer to the mainstream. Most notably, those old standbys, celebrity pitchmen, are starting to appear in e-company spots. Geena Davis stars in a commercial for online trader TD Waterhouse, and Pamela Anderson Lee appears in a recently launched campaign for the AltaVista search engine. Bob Newhart is appearing in an ad for Stamps.com, while Whoopi Goldberg promotes Flooz, a Web-based gift-currency system.

And with competition growing, some e-firms are taking a more drastic measure: playing it straight. Both trading company Datek Online and computer megasite CNET.com have decided to go ahead with traditional campaigns emphasizing clarity over cleverness. In a current Datek spot, a horde of non-Wall Streeters break through glass walls at a stock exchange, surprising the traders inside.

Only in the envelope-ripping world of new-media advertising could such a literal message be considered radically different, an irony that isn’t lost on some observers. “The challenge for dot-com ads is to meet both the ability to sell and be highly attention-getting,” says Verdi. “And [in advertising], there’s nothing new about that.”