Advertising the Information Age

MCI facing $30 million class action suit in wake of most recent advertising campaign. The Washington, D.C.-based telecommunications company, which has recently aired television spots claiming "There is no race, there are no genders, there is no age, there are no infirmities; Utopia? No, the Internet," is now being sued by private citizens claiming the company has failed to deliver on its claims viz. the Internet. The lawsuits are reminiscent of similar litigation already underway in California against America Online (AOL); that company's TV ads had claimed as recently as last weekend that "the future [is] now available on AOL." AOL's customers charge that instead of finding the future they have encountered nothing but busy signals, a fact which AOL lawyers deem irrelevant.MCI has not yet issued an official response to the lawsuits, (most of which were filed in Liberty City, Miami, Florida, South Central Los Angeles, California, and Kansas City, Iowa), though it is rumored that MCI's lawyers will argue that the recent ad campaign was largely parody, and thus did not make any serious claims about the Internet as a safe haven for American minorities.This recent return to "truth-in-advertising" litigation has many hi-tech companies worried that a tide of similar lawsuits may be rising on the horizon.Intel, the popular manufacturer of microprocessors, has shored up its resources for the coming months. The Santa Clara, Calif.-based chip maker will be launching a new television ad campaign during this Sunday's Super Bowl. That spot, which will feature a thirtysomething bald "loser" protagonist ("George" from the popular TV comedy "Seinfeld") in a not-so-ironic depiction of macho love via the PC, is not likely to raise a stir given the Super Bowl's audience.However, Intel's two other commercials for their newly introduced MMX chip may find themselves in the eye of a racial storm. The other Intel ads will feature Wild Cherry's joco-serious Disco hit "Play That Funky Music (White Boy)" while showcasing the "dirty dancing" of chip assembly line workers in a factory "clean room." As the true identity of the dancing factory workers is never revealed -- most such work is now in the hands of Asian women (abroad) and Mexican families (California) -- the festive figures represent pure "fun" and "dance," according to a company spokesperson interviewed in yesterday's "New York Times" (1/22/97). Funk music (Black) and Intel (white boys) might seem a sorry admixture but the forced association between the neutered, whitewashed world of computers and the exciting, exotic and slightly dangerous culture of America's ex-slaves is nothing new to the hi-tech industry. Infoseek, another Northern California technology firm specializing in the sale of charts and tables about the World Wide Web, began its foray into the public eye by licensing the rights to "Are You Experienced?" from the estate of the long-since deceased African-American rock legend, Jimmi Hendrix. Yahoo!, one of Infoseek's competitors similarly based in suburban Sunnyvale, Calif., has made a name for itself with both a TV ad featuring a fishing Southern yokel and a print ad which revolves around a photograph of a 70's-styled Black man in the public dress of a would-be contemporary "computer nerd."Whether or not such paeans to America's historically ostracized communities (Blacks, the elderly, the disabled) can actually communicate the elusive, almost clandestine essence of the Computer Industry, it's clear that the effort to "have the one rub off on the other" is considered effective marketing by many industry leaders. Exactly who gets rubbed "off" or rubbed "out" of the picture may be determined by lawyers in the coming months.

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