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Dear e-biz: What are you selling?

February 03, 2000

That was one Super Bowl. In fact, it was so good, and so many writers have written so many good things about it, that I feel I can with a free conscience concentrate on the negative.

Specifically, the poor quality of the advertising and Rams quarterback Kurt Warner's wife's haircut.

Maybe I'm nostalgic for the grand old days of Pepsi and the original Budweiser frogs. Pepsi was a non-factor, replaced by E-Trade, an online brokerage that ought to forget commercials and stick to what it does best, whatever that is.

In fact, that's one of my central problems; I have no idea what any of these companies do. Even if I like their advertisement, it still leaves something of an empty feeling when I can't tie it to a tangible product.

I don't believe that even some of these companies themselves know what it is they produce. They have names like "Concept.com" and never get around to telling us what it is they want us to buy from them.

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The one grand-slam commercial of the evening, a team of cowboys rounding up thousands of cats, was funny, but it was also lost on me because I never caught who was paying the $2 million for the ad, or what it is the company produces.

This is the new economy at work, I suppose. With an IPO the fledgling company announces a Web site and rakes in billions of new-investment dollars that it spends on nothing but expensive advertising campaigns that drive up the number of "hits" on its Web site, which is tracked by stock market analysts who drive up the price of the company's shares still higher, which allows the company to spend even more advertising money, which attracts even more hits, which attracts even more analyst kudos, which attracts even more investors.

All without the business ever making one blessed thing that anyone can use.

I'm just glad the Internet didn't come along earlier. If it had been around in 1900, Henry Ford would have never bothered inventing the automobile. Instead he would have announced a new Web site called "Wouldn't it be cool if we all had personal motion machines that took us from one place to another.com" and made his millions without ever having to twist a wrench.

E-Trade itself hinted at the futility of it all, with a one-minute spot featuring a dancing monkey and the rejoinder along the lines of "We just spent $2 million on this drivel; how do you manage your money?"

Personally, I don't care how E-Trade manages its money. But what I do care about is that E-Trade is part of a disturbing trend, and that is the inability of any ad agency anywhere being able to produce a funny commercial without resorting to animals.

Let's see, Sunday night we were treated to monkeys, horses, cats, cheetahs, lizards, bears, hawks, foxes, cows and, of course, dogs. Again with the dogs. I didn't know whether I was watching the Super Bowl or the annual fund drive for the National Zoo.

It's almost gotten to be formula. If an ad agency senses that its script has gotten too dry, it just ladles in a few critters, and that makes things satisfactory again.

Then we have the ultimate combination of the two - e-commerce and animalcentricism - in a company called Pets.com.

I called up their site and was treated to these features: "Will I lose Trixie because of her barking?" "Is it safe to feed my dog pig ears?" and "Ask the Vet: Scabies can make your entire family itch."

Important advice, I'm sure, but it begs the question: For this they paid $2 million?




Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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