Creative: Critique

Agency: The Martin Agency, Richmond, Va.
Creative Director: Mike Hughes
Copywriter: Steve Bassett
Art Director: Brian Fandetti
Director: Jeff Priess/Epoch Films
Agency Producer: Morty Baran
These commercials for the Yellow Pages, its first major national marketing campaign since the early ’80s, are smartly done and entertaining to watch. They are as subtle and nuanced a parody of our hyper-saturated, self-referential media culture as The Larry Sanders Show or Al Franken’s current satire, Lateline.
Jon Lovitz–former Saturday Night Live guy and voice of the animated show The Critic, the man who made “The Liar” famous and took Phil Hartman’s place on NewsRadio–is introduced in a new series of spots as The Man Who Wrote the Yellow Pages. It’s a portrait of the artist as a semihostile, semi-famous, self-promoting quasi-loser caught up in the fake hype and forward roll of his bus tour. (The bus is outfitted as if he were a rock star, or at least Wynona Judd–whereas actual authors usually fly coach.)
Every other detail is great, from the way the Janeane Garafolo-like publicist puts words in his mouth and spins humiliations to the way Lovitz himself hangs over the seat, bottle of water in hand, craving praise from her.
In one spot, Lovitz is seen sitting in his Yellow Pages Tour Bus, musing on how good it would be to speak to college students, because they “can relate to the ideas and have great questions.” Cut to his appearance, not in the hallowed groves of academe, but in front of a classroom of second-graders. One tough little customer raises her hand and asks, “You didn’t really write the Yellow Pages, did you?” Outraged author Lovitz responds, “Did too!” She replies, “Did not!” and he says, right in her face, “Did too! Infinity!”
It’s a great spot and could not have been cast, acted or directed better. But as with most things edgy and ironic, it leaves a brittle, detached feeling. It’s the knowing, TV-smart way that David Letterman mocks things, in that you can’t exactly find the humanity in the joke. The spot pays the kind of attention to artifice that is very seductive to watch but adds another level of manipulation to the viewing experience.
The problem for advertisers (as opposed to comedy-show writers) using such a sophisticated, layered attitude is that it doesn’t mix easily with the straightforward, positive belief system required to sell anything. And making Lovitz the bogus author of the book seems like a long way to go, with a bit of disconnect en route, to promote the strategy of using the Yellow Pages to “get an idea” for a family vacation or a makeover, rather than using it to look up the address of a restaurant.
There’s the rub.
The campaign is dressed in brilliant late-’90s graphic clothing, but the conceit that people are going to get excited over the Yellow Pages, without giving us some new product or benefit, doesn’t ring true. The print work is great looking and easier to warm up to than the TV ads.
My favorite ad shows Lovitz sitting on a pile of phone books, typing into a laptop that also rests atop a bunch of Yellow Pages. “I was having trouble with the end of the book. Then one day it came to me. Zoos.” (Call me overly critical, but get a stylist, Jon, lose the Converse sneakers and Hawaiian shirts. You’re 41.)
The famous “walking fingers” icon of yesteryear (“Let your fingers do the walking though the Yellow Pages “) has been updated into a lightbulb, as in “get an idea.” As an immediate visual symbol of an idea, the lightbulb icon struck me as about half a century old–I’d prefer to stick with the walking fingers. But there’s a cool little animated nanosecond in the spots, where a hand moves the fingers out of the frames and moves the lightbulb in.
Still, I will give credit where credit is due. The ads attack a dull category and make it contemporary. That was why the Nynex campaign, seen only in the Northeast in the late ’80s and at award shows, seemed doubly inspired.
Relying on a brilliant graphic clarity and conceptual wit, each of the commercials illustrated a bizarre Yellow Pages category by playing a word game, making us guess its literal meaning.
For example, in one, a bunch of stiff, uniformed cadets marched into the frame in precision. With a drill officer yelling instructions, the group does “the Funky Chicken” and “James Brown.” In the end, the category heading is revealed: Rock drills.
On the other end of the advertising spectrum, there is a straight-faced precedent, actually, for the Man Who Wrote the Yellow Pages. It was the Bell Atlantic ads using James Earl Jones. He was great, bringing a mastery and majesty to anything he does, but the commercials were pretty woeful and unintentionally humorous. In one, Jones is shown at a book signing, good-naturedly writing his name inside the heavy tomes for the local advertisers.
So it’s fitting that Lovitz does not have a sweet nature here. You get a little of the Nynex feeling in print, with the inspired use of white space, and Lovitz is quoted as saying clever, self-deprecating things, such as, “It’s not what I would call a ‘funny’ book. But I did use humor where I thought it was appropriate. Clowns, Comedy Clubs and Sump Pumps, for instance.”
The reason the print ads make more sense, in a straightforward fashion, is that Lovitz is used as a goofy, Hawaiian-shirted pitchman in them; whereas in the TV commercials, he gives the performance of his life: the anti-writer alienated from his own bogus assignment, the Hamlet of the Yellow Pages. That’s a lot of angst and torture to associate with looking for piano tuning and shoe repair, even when the lightbulb goes on.