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Wednesday, Oct 16 1996
KTVU's Free Willie Plug
Any regular viewer of Channel 2 (KTVU) is aware of the cozy relationship the station has with Mayor Willie Brown. But a new promo for its 10 o'clock news pushes the bounds of acceptable intimacy between newsmakers and newsgatherers.

Channel 2 has used Brown as a talk show regular and even an election night commentator, legitimate moves to spice up the station's political coverage. But in a 30-second ad introduced during the National League playoffs two weeks ago, Brown isn't appearing on KTVU's news, he's starring in a promotion for it (and pulling off a tongue-in-cheek boost for himself).

"No one knows what the future will bring" is the theme: Skiers swoosh down a Lombard Street covered in snow; the 2008 Olympics open in a gleaming Treasure Island stadium; and, at some unspecified date, the "new nominee" (for president) is -- Willie Brown.

It's funny enough, and the graphics are a rich technological confection. The Brown scene uses stock footage of the 1992 Democratic National Convention, complete with a black conventioneer holding a "Brown" sign (presumably Jerry's). Willie is shown at a mock-presidential podium, mugging, clasping his hands, and pointing and smiling at the crowd -- except that there was no crowd, and the scene was not taken from a previously photographed real event, but instead was manufactured in KTVU's studios, by the marketing department, with Brown playing himself.

Steve Poitras, KTVU marketing director and the spot's producer, says Brown was a willing participant. "He just jumped into it," Poitras says. "He played along beautifully." It just shows "he's a very out-there mayor."

More like an out-for-himself mayor, but that's natural for pols.
What's unseemly here is asking a sitting officeholder -- and potential target of the news department -- to promote a news show. Poitras says, "That was a concern." But that concern was soon steamrolled. "It's a fun way to end the spot."

Poitras was more consumed with the technological feats than any ethical worries. A Silicon Graphics whiz he recruited executed the stunts like melding Brown into the older footage -- for a fraction of what conventional methods would have cost. "This is pretty advanced for a local station," Poitras says. Ah, progress.

"The news side took it all in fun," he insists. "We do enough serious promotions." Besides, he says, he didn't ask anchors Elaine Corral and Dennis Richmond "to sing and dance." Not this time, at least.

The Darker Image
The Sharper Image is looking for a new one, now that its first print "image" campaign, which debuts this month, has drawn protests from customers and, word has it, the chairman himself. The offending ad was part of a six-page spread that broke in magazines like Sports Illustrated, GQ, and, on Oct. 13, the New York Times Magazine. According to TSI marketing VP Sydney Klevatt, it will reach 15 million readers and cost $1.5 million.

TSI may live to regret the ambitiousness of its plans. The problems stem from a double truck for a $400 night scope. The product itself is typical Sharper Image/Hardy-Boys-in-Tomorrowland fare. But the way the company's ad agency, Goodby, Silverstein & Partners (of "Got Milk?" fame), chose to present it is much more sinister. Printed on a black background is a green-tinted, underexposed, black-and-white photo of a man and woman in passionate embrace at night -- his mouth against her pale bare shoulder, her slip strap having fallen to her elbow -- behind a closed window. "See through total darkness to house numbers, burglars, even dogs!" (shades of howling Akitas) reads the tag line in white letters floating just above them.

In the bottom right corner of the facing page, a hand in a shiny black leather glove points the Moonlight Nightscope in the direction of the couple, its green eye glowing. It can be used "to view all kinds of interesting and educational stuff," the copy reads. "Palm size, with deluxe carrying bag ... (Bail not included.)" it ends.

Reached Monday, Klevatt said that the company had received enough comments over the weekend to convince them to withdraw the Nightscope plug where it was contractually possible. (The buy was made simultaneously in six publications across the country and is scheduled to continue through the December holidays.) "It was of concern to us," he said of the responses, which reportedly included TSI Chairman Richard Thalheimer.

"We're certainly not advocating anything other than tongue-in-cheek," he said, pointing to the line about bail. You aren't going to buy it to stalk your neighbors, "[y]ou're really going to get it to bird hunt, or find your car in a parking lot," he explained.

He said most of the complaints came from women, though "we tested it and talked about it with women at the office" with no negative response. Which prompts the question of how TSI's male customers might feel about being targeted as would-be criminals.

We suspect stalkers and peeping Toms don't figure highly in the Times Magazine's demographics. Whether GQ has a more appropriate readership is anyone's guess.

Phyllis Orrick and Susan Rasky can be reached at SF Weekly, Attn: Unspun, 425 Brannan, San Francisco, CA 94107; phone: (415) 536-8139; e-mail:

About The Authors

Phyllis Orrick


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