Message in a bottle

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 23 July, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 23 July, 2005, 12:00am

The creative folks of the advertising world may not have to sell iceboxes to Eskimos to prove their mettle any more - but they have almost as tough a task: making their clients stand out amid the giant electronic signs that dominate New York's Times Square.

In a city where ads can now be found on Chinese takeaway food boxes and even rubbish bins, it is getting more and more difficult to stand out from the crowd. The only solution, the marketing industry seems to have decided, is to be more outrageous with each effort. After all, outrage may get your sign taken down, but it buys you publicity at a low cost.

As I am writing this, 20 hip young people have just finished spending two days dancing and sweating (New York has been as hot and steamy as Hong Kong in recent weeks) inside a giant bottle hung above Times Square. The bottle, supposed to resemble the one containing Calvin Klein's CK One perfume, became a unique live billboard on July 19. 'Nowhere else is anybody building a three-storey-high bottle,' Calvin Klein's spokesman said.

But even this innovative live show did not get broad media coverage. After all, Times Square has seen it all in recent years. It has been the stage for stunning live commercials, such as when British entrepreneur Richard Branson descended largely naked to promote the 'nothing-to-hide' policy of his Virgin Mobile phone company.

Sex still sells. One Times Square billboard for Swatch featured a couple of cartoon bunnies enjoying their intimate life in six different positions. The advert was savaged, but the 'Bunnysutra' watch soon traded for US$200 on eBay - almost four times its original value.

Sex-oriented ads can get especially great publicity if they are blasted by authorities. A poster for clothing manufacturer Akademiks showed a girl in a tight sweater and knickers, holding a book under the slogan: 'Read Books, Get Brain.'

It was carried quietly by subways and buses for two months before the transport authority learned the slogan contained teenage slang for oral sex. Now almost all New York teenagers know the brand.

Sometimes you can create controversy by messing up a promising idea, as Snapple did last month. It tried to produce the world's largest frozen ice-pop treat, but did not count on the temperatures soaring. Soon, the ice-pop in Manhattan's Union Square was melting, flooding the area with a kiwi-strawberry river. The city had to close part of a major street to clean it up.

The company's Guinness World Records dream was shattered, but it still won headlines all over the world.