Sunday, July 20, 2008

Definitely Legal, potentially digital: Seafood ads bite back in Boston

Banned in Boston – it’s a great line. But it’s true again in whole a new way. In June, I rode the Green Line and was searching for these Legal Seafood fish ads that someone had told me about, but alas, I was too late. They’d been banned. At least on the sides of MBTA buses and transit trains. According to Fortune magazine,

The ad campaign, devised by the DeVito/Verdi agency in New York, plays on a “really fresh fish” theme; each ad depicts a cartoon fish with a message bubble containing a borscht-belt-style insulting (i.e., “fresh”) remark.

Though some of the tart messages passed muster with the MBTA, at least one crossed the line, and the MBTA barred it. The forbidden message which had provoked complaints from the Boston Carmen’s Union, said, “This conductor has a face like a halibut.”

MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo says that the authority considered the ad “disparaging to employees,” “disrespectful,” and “not appropriate.”…. The MBTA had no problem with ads that proclaimed, “Hey lady, I’ve seen smaller noses on a swordfish,” and “This trolley gets around more than your sister.”
Rather than back down, Legal Seafoods hired a first amendment lawyer and defended their actions as free speech – and then ran some new ads with the word “censored” across the fish’s speech bubble. After some debate, the MBTA eventually agreed to let them run and Legal Seafoods graciously ran a full page ad offering a complimentary fish entrée to any train conductor who comes to eat at one of the restaurants. The halibut was back in business!

While this was a terrific -- and unpredictable -- marketing gimmick, it’s also an interesting campaign that could translate nicely into the digital media sphere, launched on multiple sites. Consider how the fish might develop into their own website, where users can check on them and see what they are up to on any given day. More to the point, imagine the fish digitally broadcast on the side of a building, mouthing off a new saying every day or wrapped around the Legal's delivery truck or city buses.

The campaign is also intriguing because it could even include a nod to the predecessors of today’s technology, the neon sign. A great example is Wholey’s Meat and Seafood of Pittsburgh, a city landmark that has an neon fish sign on its wholesale warehouse. It’s simple but easy to read in the evening cityscape, visible looking up from street level, but also at eye level for passing highway traffic. Imagine a more interactive version of the Wholey fish, offering pithy advice or nasty comments to drivers. Legal’s could launch a variety of interactive digital environments around its fresh fish image.

I'm inspired because the Legal Seafood's fishheads are perhaps intentionally designed to look like the mounted talking bass, that kitschy wall decoration that was once ubiquitous and is now hard to find! Indeed, if you’re so inclined (and you have one in your attic), there are instructions online for hack into your Billy the Big Mouth Bass to give him a whole variety of new sayings, create better lip synching, and program better motion control.

Now that’s something I’d like to see while riding the T... and it'd give a whole new meaning to the term "digital signage"!

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