Websites have invaded prime time with slick, high-concept ad campaigns

By James Oliver Cury
Updated April 09, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT

If, as Frank Zappa supposedly said, writing about music is like dancing about architecture, what can we make of TV commercials for websites? Tough as it may be, advertisers have lately found dozens of ways to portray the world’s most interactive medium on the world’s most passive one. was overloaded after its Super Bowl ad, while spots for and Netscape Netcenter reached 48.5 million viewers during Barbara Walters’ interview with Monica Lewinsky. Such commercials can cost a bundle to produce — not to mention the price of airtime ($1 million for 30 seconds during the Oscars) — but the recognition can be worth the cost, even if some viewers have no idea what’s being sold. Here’s our take on how creative — and convincing — the new wave of Web ads are.

AOL 4.0
TAG LINE: ”So easy to use, no wonder it’s No. 1”

Testimonials sell laundry detergent, cereal, aspirin — so why not online services? This one starts with a voice-over — ”The easiest just got easier” — cuts to a woman swearing that AOL really is easy, before jumping to a video of someone plugging a phone cord into the jack. Need more proof? Listen to a multicultural roster rattle off what they like best (instant messages, buddy lists, news, shopping) in a mind-numbingly quick series of MTV-like edits that concludes with a cute little lad proclaiming ”So easy my dad can use it.” Did we mention that it’s easy? B

TAG LINE: ”Someday we’ll all invest this way”

It’s great to see E*Trade dis the investment banking community with its portrayal of a self-centered broker yapping about his own nest egg. And it might work if the service could convince us that online investing is safe (there’s no mention of E*Trade’s recent outages, of course). The second goal: Tell us what’s in it for us. Instead, we get lip service about free real-time quotes, research, and ”Smart Alerts” (whatever they are). B+

TAG LINE: ”There’s a better job out there”

Irony unites us in these late 1990s. How else can you explain the perverse kick in seeing little kids solemnly proclaim their desire to someday file all day, claw their way up to middle management, and get forced into early retirement? Shot in black and white with choir-like vocals in the background, the ad will make you laugh and make you cry — but will it get you to visit the website to find a job? Seems like a monstrously large leap of faith. A-

TAG LINE: ”Snap to the possibilities”

A hearing-impaired boy hand-signals his mom goodbye and boards a schoolbus. A classmate sees the exchange, goes online later in the day, looks up sign language, and introduces himself to the kid the next day using the gestures he gleaned from a website. From this, we’re supposed to extrapolate that Snap is a great portal? Sappy without being clever, it shows that the site’s NBC affiliation is affecting its image — for the worse C