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What Makes an ‘L.A.’ Ad?

When a Chicago ad agency handled the Washington Mutual advertising account, TV spots focused on the competition as portrayed by a group of unhelpful, greedy bankers wearing black suits in wood-paneled offices.

When the account moved to TBWAChiatDay in Los Angeles, the noted agency developed the “WooHoo” campaign for WaMu. Ads showed people learning about the bank’s services, which inspired them to fantasize about rolling on the ground with puppies or racing down the road in a high-speed car. All done in bright, bright colors under sunlit skies.

“Once we get a hold of the account, it’s all optimistic,” said Brett Craig, creative director of TBWAChiatDay. “Now, is that because of L.A.? I don’t know, but it’s interesting that we decided to talk about what’s good about the bank versus what’s negative about all the other banks.”

The difference in those ad campaigns shows what makes L.A. ads distinctive from those produced elsewhere. L.A. ads tend to be brighter, bolder, funnier and more optimistic. If Madison Avenue is famous for selling soap, Los Angeles is famous for selling dreams.

The beach, mountains or desert serve as a backdrop, sometimes with a celebrity appearance. But advertising and public relations professionals don’t just use the L.A. look to sell products to the rest of the world. The ads are infused with the city’s dreamy essence, which has seeped into the unconscious of those who create the ads.

“When you’re living in an environment of fantasy like we are here in L.A., you can’t help but draw from it,” said Howie Cohen of the Phelps Group.

Before coming to Los Angeles about 20 years ago, Cohen worked in the advertising business on Madison Avenue, where he coined phrases like “I can’t believe that I ate the whole thing” for Alka-Seltzer.


Liberating experience

Cohen said that moving to Los Angeles was a liberating experience.

“Out here people say ‘Have a nice day’ and watch the sun go down at the beach,” he said. “It’s just a much more positive environment than New York or Chicago. And that is reflected in the type of messages that are communicated to consumers.”

The environment has also turned Los Angeles into the prime mover in the world of car commercials.

“New Yorkers can’t relate to our lifestyle,” said Russel Wohlwerth, principal at Los Angeles-based marketing consulting firm Ark Advisors. “In New York, you use the car on weekends. Here, it’s your life. We understand what a car means to a person, and the rest of the country looks to Southern California for car culture, whether it’s design, aftermarket parts or advertising.”

L.A. advertising is linked to the city’s longtime reputation as a trend-setting spot.

“You can be cool in New York or Chicago, but L.A. is where cool is created,” said Michael Levine, founder and chief executive of Levine Communications Office, a prominent PR firm.

The L.A. lifestyle and its new-agey ways led to the idea of how consumers “feel” about a product moving into the forefront.

“Marketing is a much more emotional experience than it was when Madison Avenue was the center of the advertising universe,” said Eric Hirshberg, creative director at Deutsch LA.

Ad campaigns for packed goods such as detergent, toothpaste and toilet paper have traditionally been very rational, selling the benefits of the product rather than trying to make an emotional connection, said Hirshberg, who has worked on accounts for GM, Expedia and Old Navy, among others.

“Los Angeles and, to a greater extent Hollywood, have changed all of that,” he said. “Now you see even the packaged goods business making emotional connections in order to get the attention of consumers.”

Deutsch LA was responsible for making the “Happy Cow” television spots that feature cow conversations, ending with the tagline: “Great cheese comes from happy cows. Happy cows come from California.”

Hirshberg said that the ads were originally designed to run only in California, but several years into the campaign, the ads began to slowly make their way into other Western states.

The Happy Cows were introduced nationally, when the spots aired on leading cable stations, including A & E;, TLC, Animal Planet, Food Network, USA, Lifetime and HGTV. The ads have appeared on network TV, as well, including a CBS Super Bowl spot.

The ads are so distinctive that 80 percent of American women recognize the cows, according to the client, the California Milk Advisory Board.


Show biz scene

Because the city is the stage for the entertainment world, the media carries the message more often than it might elsewhere. That’s where public relations agencies cash in.

Los Angeles also has a distinct niche in the public relations industry.

“If you’re going to be in the PR business in Los Angeles, you have to be a part of the entertainment industry,” said Jerry Swerling, professor and director of PR studies at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication.

Agencies that focus on entertainment usually specialize in one of three main areas: events, press coverage or crisis management. There are a few PR agencies that are multifaceted.

MPRM Public Relations is one of the most notable local firms in the L.A.-centric domain of film promotions.

The agency frequently handles the flow and pacing of foot traffic along red carpets at numerous film festivals throughout the world. As celebrities arrive in their limos, a small cadre of MPRM handlers wearing headsets chatter in whispered tones, orchestrating the interaction between stars and the media.

The agency also manage press events for new movie releases, inviting television, radio and print reporters to meet with a film’s lead actors, the director and producers for a day of rapid-fire interviews, usually in several rooms of a swank hotel or resort.

And sometimes the companies have to manage the “buzz” or gossip that can make or break a film or a celebrity. That can be a daunting task when news of a starlet’s breakdown appears around the world, on cable TV and the Internet within minutes.

“Celebrity has gone global,” said Rachel McCallister, co-founder and president of MPRM. “We are in the throes of a major sea change and Los Angeles is at the center of it all. The digital age has changed everything. The audience has moved online.”

Beyond the obvious connection with the entertainment industry, Los Angeles public relations firms work to keep a company’s message on target across several media, from radio to TV and from print to the Internet.

“Public relations is much less corporate and tends to be handled by smaller agencies or even individuals,” said Swerling of USC. “That makes them better able to adapt to changing technologies.”


Environmental issue

It’s no question that the environment defines the style of public relations and advertising in Los Angeles. The same goes for other cities.

“Look at the comedy that comes out of New York,” said Craig of TBWA/Chiat/Day. “It has an abrupt, grating, dark humor. I don’t see that humor on the West Coast.”

“The stuff in New York is edgy, but dark,” said Russel Wohlwerth of Ark Advisors. “They’re into their urban environment. We have sunshine and palm trees; they have concrete.”

The creative people in the world of advertising bring the sights and sounds of their environment into work every day, said David Smith, executive director at RPA Inc., the largest independent ad agency in Los Angeles.

“I think a lot of advertising is driven by the city and the environment, from the weather to the traffic to home prices,” Smith said. “Minneapolis, for example, still has a style of advertising. And it’s very thoughtful, very intelligent. They craft their print to an amazing degree, every word is chosen carefully and the designs are worked over. Why? Because it’s cold outside. So they stay in and focus. L.A. guys look for a colorful visual. And it shows.

“We encourage all our folks to get out of the shop,” Smith continued. “Ideas come from the life you live, the world you explore and the activities you pursue on weekends and after hours. So there’s an obvious reason why L.A. has a sunnier, more optimistic attitude in the work.”


Staff reporter Joel Russell contributed to this article.

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