Now that the Iran-contra hearings have officially left the airwaves and Ollie North T-shirts have begun selling for half price, a host of copywriters has stepped in to prove that there's life in the Contragate concept yet.
In the past week, more than a half dozen advertising campaigns spawned by the hearings have appeared on radio and television, including a local spot that's already been yanked at the request of the man who inspired it. A "John Poindexter Compact Disc Sale" ad for the local Kemp Mill Records store chain aired on the radio three days last weekend but was pulled Monday after Poindexter's lawyer complained.
"I got a phone call from his attorney, who did not care for that ad at all," says Kemp Mill Vice President Howard Appelbaum, who dreamed up the spot with advertising coordinator Lynn Kricun. The ad copy announced $2 off on all compact discs, adding "And to the best of our knowledge, the president doesn't know anything about it!"
"We just felt it was improper use of Admiral Poindexter's name," says Poindexter's lawyer, Richard W. Beckler.
With at least one notable exception -- a series of ads called "The Rosenthal Hearings" for the car dealerships of the same name -- the advertisements have been made for radio. They include a Washington security firm's advertisement of its document shredding services, a promotional spot for a local radio station in which "Oliver North" is questioned about his listening habits, and last, a national radio campaign for Pizza Hut.
The use of current political events in advertising copy is unusual, but not unheard of. American Express, Watergate buffs will remember, hired Senate Watergate committee chairman Sam Ervin to remind viewers not to leave home without it. But generally, says Fred Danzig, longtime editor of Advertising Age, political tempests are too transitory and too controversial to be of much help to national advertisers. Danzig speculates that Pizza Hut, whose ad campaign featuring comedian Rich Hall has been less than wildly successful, may see the hearings as a way to break out of the pack. "They're vamping until they come up with a long-term strategy," he says.
The Pizza Hut cast includes a Fawn Hall figure and her "fella" and several other voices loosely based on Iran-contra witnesses and their lawyers. The spots begin with the hushed voice of a narrator: "We now join the committee hearings on the pizza cover-up."
In one spot, a pizza cook from a second-rate restaurant denies having received shipments of imitation cheese, which sends his congressional interrogator into apoplexy.
"Do you know the man seated behind you?" the congressman shouts. (It's an international imitation-cheese broker, of course.)
"Actually I do recall receiving some of the imitation cheese," the cook amends, adding defensively, "I'm just a cook."
"How many cooks do you know drive a limo, huh?" retorts the congressman.
"The man drives his own airplane!" objects another.
There are five Pizza Hut spots in all, the brainchild of a team of copywriters at the Los Angeles advertising firm of Chiat/Day. (The agency, Los Angeles' largest and perhaps most creative, also was responsible for Apple Computer's startling "1984" spot and Nike's memorable ad campaign during the L.A. Olympics.) Dave Lubars, a senior copywriter at Chiat/Day, says the idea for the Pizza Hut spots came to him as he watched the hearings on television one night.
The Pizza Hut spots originally were intended for the Midwestern market only, but Pizza Hut executives liked the spots so much they approved them for the entire country. The Pizza Hut team made an effort to keep the ads from veering too close to reality. The scripts were rewritten several times. "We didn't want to cross the line of bad taste," Lubars said. "We tried to take joking pokes at the hearings instead of being sarcastic." The ads are scheduled to run the rest of the summer, and there has been some discussion of a television campaign as well.
The Rosenthal automotive empire also got into the act this week, with a series of four television ads and seven radio spots. They show longtime Rosenthal spokesman Don Richards, his gray hair clipped into an Ollie North modified buzz cut, in a green military uniform festooned with military decorations that read "Honda," "Mazda," etc. As the words "Almost Live" appear in the upper right corner of the screen, the hearing is gaveled to order by an actor who looks vaguely like Senate committee chairman Daniel Inouye.
"So it was you who ordered the 3,000 cars and trucks forcing this drastic sale and never told Bob Rosenthal?" the committee counsel says to the North figure as photographs of Rosenthal inventory are flashed onto an easel.
"Counsel, if you'll refer to Exhibit 3, you'll see we're offering 500 to 1,000 dollars cash back on every model, so I'm sure Bob Rosenthal would have approved," says the North figure.
"And there's no money down?"
"Contra to your allegation, it's true."
Joe Isuzu, call your office.
"It's all tongue in cheek -- something like Milton Berle would have done," says Jim Ricca, head of Ricca and Associates and the man responsible for the ads. "Everybody I know has called me to tell me how cute they are."
Well, not everyone.
Mark D. Goldstein, president and former creative director of the Washington office of the Earle Palmer Brown agency, praises the Pizza Hut spots as "very funny, although I didn't understand the point of the commercial," but says the Rosenthal campaign is a clumsy failure.
"It's just an embarrassment," says Goldstein. "It's supposed to be satirical but there's nothing funny about it."
"I think the spot is so offensive it will cause a negative reaction," says the director of one local radio station, who declined to be named. "It shows a clear lack of appreciation for the seriousness of the issue."
Ricca, however, says that apart from some negative calls the first day the ads appeared, public reaction has been positive.
Is the boomlet of Iran-contra advertising about to become a full-blown trend? Not likely. In fact, except for Pizza Hut, the phenomenon doesn't seem to have spread beyond the Beltway.
Kemp Mill Records, still stinging perhaps from its scolding by the Poindexter legal team, is airing a Sean Penn spoof this weekend. "Not to insult anyone," Kemp Mill's Appelbaum says, "but John Poindexter is over.