Driving for a touchdown Wieden+Kennedy is hoping

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DYLAN RIVERA

In the commercial breaks during the broadcast of next week’s Super Bowl, Portland’s Wieden+Kennedy ad agency will be throwing long in an effort to put its latest big-name account deep in the minds of Super Bowl viewers.

In three 30-second ads that will air during the game, the agency will kick off a campaign for America Online’s dial-up Internet service — a high-profile start to a massive ad campaign that could boost the independent ad agency’s reputation, or push it back several yards.

Wieden+Kennedy, which has traditionally relied on nearby Nike as its largest client, is attempting to add new A-list companies as it recovers from a recession-induced advertising slump. How well the agency’s Super Bowl ads fare, industry veterans say, could play a role in determining the near-term success of that drive.

The Super Bowl campaign will feature the tattooed gearheads from Discovery Channel’s “American Chopper” reality show to send the message that AOL’s new dial-up service is fast and hip. In the ads, a family of motorcycle manufacturers try to customize a car and a motorcycle with an AOL device, that this being advertising after all, makes things go faster.

“It allows you to symbolically demonstrate outrageous speed without showing a Web page,” said Len Short, executive vice president of AOL.

The first Super Bowl ads for Wieden+Kennedy since 1997 represent a huge opportunity for the agency.

If they get a hearty thumbs-up from Super Bowl viewers, it would be a touchdown for the agency. But if the ads drown in a sea of light beer and potato chip commercials, it could mean an early hiccup for Wieden+Kennedy’s hopes to grow its revenues out of a national advertising downturn.

“As with anything that gets that kind of visibility, if it flops, then everybody’s watching,” said Marian Friestad, professor of marketing at the University of Oregon. “You can’t have that failure in the privacy of being unnoticed. Everyone’s watching.”

Beyond initial reactions to the ads’ content, the main test for Wieden+Kennedy will be whether it can help reverse an exodus of customers from AOL’s dial-up and broadband Internet service. The company lost 2 million U.S. subscribers from September 2002 to September 2003, down to 24.7 million, which includes broadband and dial-up subscribers.

The company hired Wieden+Kennedy in June to spruce up the image of its dial-up service. BBDO, a New York-based unit of Omnicom, markets AOL’s higher-speed broadband service.

AOL’s solution to keep subscribers: offer TopSpeed, a device embedded in AOL’s version 9.0 that will make Web pages load almost as quickly as they would on a local network, common in workplaces. Internet users who use a dial-up connection for occasional purchases will notice the difference more than the more sophisticated broadband users, AOL’s Short said.

The task for Wieden+Kennedy was to come up with a way to express speed in a funny way, for a mass audience of millions of people.

Paul Teutul Sr. and his sons, a brutish family of mechanics, might seem to be an odd choice to link up with the nation’s largest Internet provider. But to Wieden+Kennedy creative director Tim Hanrahan and copy writer Mark Fitzloff, they seemed like a natural fit for the message.

“The average person doesn’t know how TopSpeed technology or the Internet works, but they love the benefit of faster,” Hanrahan said. “So we thought the Teutuls were a great example of average guys.”

The linkage isn’t intended to revamp AOL’s image, the way Oldsmobile used Led Zeppelin songs to update the car brand’s stodgy reputation.

But can a bickering father and his two sons tinkering with big-engine cars and motorcycles appeal to the mass audience AOL has targeted?

Yes, said Hanrahan and Fitzloff, two of seven Wieden+Kennedy staffers who have focused on the ads since November.

Custom motorcycles appeal specifically to baby boomer men who were inspired by the 1960s movie “Easy Rider.” But through their show’s popularity on the Discovery Channel, the Teutels have demonstrated broad appeal. The working-class ethic appeals to a variety of people. Women and a variety of people can relate to the idea of making something with your hands. And a family feud has broad appeal.

“It’s funny to watch salt of the earth family types bicker and quarrel but also love each other,” Fitzloff said.

The University of Oregon’s Friestad agreed. The popularity of seeing real people use their hands has broad appeal, demonstrated by the popularity of cable shows focusing on cooking, redecorating and makeovers.

“What they may represent at a broader level is working for yourself, doing it with your own hands,” she said. “There’s a slightly blue-collar tinge with the post-9/11 common man as hero theme that’s much broader.”

Yet, dial-up service is not made for the Internet’s highest speeds. And choppers may look cool, but every motorcycle enthusiast knows they’re not made for speed, either.

Logical consistency may be too much to ask for from a 30-second ad.

“It’s not the meaning that is somehow objectively, factually true,” Friestad said. “It’s the meaning that’s taken away by the audience; it’s a symbolic kind of thing”

Dylan Rivera: 503-221-8532, [email protected].