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09/04/00 - Attack Of The Puppet People

Those who sue shouldn't and those who don't should. That's the twisted trend in the world of advertising trade libel cases.

The Observation Post has cited numerous examples of look alike advertising that would seemingly cause advertisers like Apple Computers, Time Magazine, Mobil Oil and others to rally their legal teams. But they've mercifully decided not to further clog our court system.

Instead, the most publicized "intellectual property" case in recent months has been mounted by Pets.com against a rubber puppet used on the Conan O'Brien show in a recurring skit. Pet.com sued Robert Smigel, creator and voice of "Triumph, the Insult Comic Dog," to the tune of $20 million for defaming their "spokespuppet." Notice any similarities?

The irony is, Triumph is over three years old (in dog years that's the equivalent of 21). Pets.com introduced their sockpuppet only a year ago in August 1999. If anything, Pets.com should get credit for their success in puppet dog cloning, right down to Triumph's microphone.

So are the folks at Pets.com dipping into the animal tranquilizer or what? Actually, they're reacting as any cornered animal would. With their stock off 80 points from its peak, they might have provoked this vicious dogfight because the publicity might do them some good.

Besides making them look like bad guys to the hip audience they're courting with their oh-so-wry commercials, their legal shenanigans bring greater attention to the fact that their puppet dog is a copycat.

Which might not have been so bad in and of itself since they staked out ownership of a spokespuppet in America with a healthy media budget. While it didn't do much for pet supply sales, I'm sure they hoped they'd duplicate the response another spokespuppet generated for Levis in Europe--Flat Eric.

The Flat Eric campaign got its start just like the Budweiser "Whassup?!" campaign, as a short film by an obscure director that found its way into an ad agency. After editing the footage into TV commercial lengths and inserting the client's logo in the final frames, an edgy campaign was born. (The spots' cool dance music--written by the director--also helped.)

Soon there were dozens of Flat Eric fan sites on the web, CDs, T-shirts and dolls. The campaign swept international ad awards competitions during 1999 and provided Pets.com with assurance that spokespuppets were a hot.

Of course, for those who need a little extra confidence that a concept is acceptable, there's nothing like adapting a campaign concept another advertiser has already imported. The hope is that nobody else will do the same for a while--at least in your product category.

All of which is why it's not surprising that Domino's Pizza recently introduced its own puppet called "Bad Andy." What's hard to understand is why they just didn't secure the US licensing rights to Flat Eric. In Europe, he advertised Levis Sta-Prest pants--a clear conceptual association to his name. (According to DaBitch at ad-rag.com, the original Flat Eric short film ended with him being flattened by a car--but this grim scene was taken out of the TV spots).

There's a similar link between "flat" and pizza. Domino's could have built a thin crust campaign around him. Instead, they came up with "Bad Andy" a mischievous ape-like creature who, though seemingly in the employ of Domino's, continuously tries to undermine their operations. Huh? Why would Domino's tolerate this gremlin let alone acknowledge him in their new tagline "Good Pizza. Bad Andy?"

Actually, "Bad Andy" is basically an update of Domino's Noid character from the late 80s. It used a similar, negative tagline--"Avoid the Noid." But at least the Noid, dressed in a wild jester's outfit, was clearly a menace to pizza quality that Domino's overcame, not a mascot. Instead of verbal discipline, Domino's ought to spank the monkey.

Marketing innovation obviously isn't a priority at Domino's. Just as their new character is an "Andy come lately" to the spokespuppet trend, the Noid was a product of the California Raisins-inspired Claymation craze.

Hope their pizza is fresher than their ad concepts.