Offensive line gives Unitas no respect

Advertisement: `Why was Joe Namath so much more popular?' asks an SUV maker, riling Baltimore Colts fans.

May 08, 2000|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,SUN STAFF

The name jumps out of the television set, hitting a Baltimorean's ear the way a high-pitched sound affects a dog.

Did that guy just say something about Johnny Unitas?

"Why was Joe Namath so much more popular than Johnny Unitas?" asks a silky voice belonging to actor Hector Elizondo. He makes the question sound rhetorical, and perhaps it is -- to the rest of the country.

"Both were great quarterbacks." Relief sets in. It's going to be OK. Sure, the images are stark, black-and-white shots of a muddy, desolate football field near some smoke-belching factory, but the voice said he was great, didn't it? "Both jerseys hang in the Hall of Fame." You betcha.

"But then only one quarterback was seen on the sidelines -- " the screen goes to black for a second, and suddenly we're in a ticker tape parade, watching a so-called "beauty shot" of a Mitsubishi Montero SUV navigate the streets of some glamorous metropolis -- "in a full-length mink coat."

Is this any way to sell an SUV? It depends on one's point of view. Or, perhaps more correctly, on one's latitude and longitude.

John Ziemann -- president of Baltimore's Marching Ravens, former president of the Colts band -- was outraged when he first caught the ad, which began airing in heavy rotation on April 24.

"I just went off. I just totally went off," he says by cell phone from Memorial Stadium, where he is cataloging memorabilia. "I said, `First of all, John Unitas, as far as I'm concerned, is the Babe Ruth of professional football. Mr. Namath had one good game.

"Of course it had to be in the Super Bowl. Of course, it had to be against us.' "

From Los Angeles, the ad's creator has a different perspective. "I'm a huge Unitas fan," Eric Hirshberg, executive vice president/executive creative director at Deutsch LA, says via cell phone amid an L.A. traffic jam. "But it was just the perfect metaphor. I honestly think the only way you could do it is with two great quarterbacks, and both were indisputably great. That's the point."

Ah, but it's a point that still stabs in these parts, where the Mitsubishi demographic -- 30 or over, upscale, capable of buying a $30,000-plus vehicle -- has collided with the Unitas demographic -- 40 or over, all over the socio-economic map, capable of forgetting, but never forgiving.

Baltimore always seems to be fighting the image wars, somewhere, somehow. Most recently, it was Mayor Martin O'Malley fretting over "The Corner." Before that, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke had "Homicide," at best an unorthodox greeting card for the city. (It did generate tourism, however, in the form of an annual "Homicon.") Before that, we had to cope with William Donald Schaefer, who was dubbed the wackiest mayor in America by the tabloids.

And then there was 1969. Remember 1969? Ziemann, who joined the Colts band in 1962, remembers it all too clearly. Hirshberg, 32, knows of Super Bowl III and Joe "I guarantee it" Namath only second-hand. The Jets' legendary 16-7 upset over the Colts kicked off a year in which the then-Baltimore then-Bullets lost to the Knicks and the Orioles lost to the Mets.

There are people who will tell you that the Unitas-Namath face-off was a seminal moment in our culture and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. And there are people such as Ziemann, who find little solace in the broad view.

As for Johnny Unitas himself -- well, he was out of town and didn't return a call seeking his comment. But he approved it, Hirshberg points out, and was paid for the use of his name, as was Namath.

"It's all in good fun," he says of the "Broadway Joe" spot.

All right, but a few more questions, Mr. Hirshberg. That muddy, desolate football field -- where is it? The ad agency created the field outside San Francisco, painting lines and erecting goal posts near a factory there. And why, of all the things one could have said about Joe Namath to establish his coolness -- the guarantee, the pantyhose, the hair, the shoes -- was the fur coat emphasized?

"Because the fur coat is stylish and luxurious," he says. And that's the ad's message: Other SUVs promise toughness; this one delivers style. It's a campaign that has worked well for Mitsubishi, which has seen its sales increase dramatically after Deutsche took over the account.

But, wait -- another question: Was Deutsch, by any chance, handling Mitsubishi's advertising in 1998, when the company began airing commercials claiming that the Mitsubishi Eclipse would enable one to move faster through "that really bad smell on the Jersey Turnpike." You know, the one that Gov. Christine Todd Whitman raised such a, well, stink about, and it was taken off the air the very next day?

Yes, as it turns out.

And the cultural icon in the next Montero commercial, which was to begin airing this week? The Trojan Horse. Meanwhile, "Dragnet" fans might want to look for the spot in which Joe Friday loses out to Shaft, in terms of style.

As for Ziemann -- he drives a Jeep Cherokee. If he ever thought about switching to a Montero, such thoughts are long gone.

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