WORLD: STUART ELLIOTT IN AMERICA

What does it say about Madison Avenue's vaunted creativity when one of the US's most talked-about campaigns stars singing rodents? Would it make any difference if I told you they're monkeys?

The campaign in question is for Quiznos, a fast-growing chain of sandwich shops that competes against the likes of Subway, not to mention fast-food giants such as McDonald's and Burger King. Known recently for cutting-edge ads featuring people behaving as if they were cartoon characters, the better to appeal to its core customers, ages 18 to 34, the newest Quiznos campaign either raises the bar or sinks to a new low, depending on your perspective.

To Bob Garfield, the critic for Advertising Age, the TV ads with the goofy monkeys, from Interpublic's Martin Agency in Richmond, Virginia, rate three-and-a-half stars out of a possible four. "This stuff is so weird, unexpected and reckless that it's just plain cool," he wrote.

But comments received by this columnist after the campaign started have been taking a far harsher tack. "Every time I see these spots, I cringe," one reader, who signed an e-mail "Heading to Subway Instead", said. Another e-mail castigating the spots described the monkeys as "very ugly, rodent-looking things", the sight of which "turns one's stomach". "Who in their right mind uses rodents to promote food?" another wondered.

"The philosophy we have here is when we have the ball we have to score, because we are up against competitors who have the ball a lot more than we do," Trey Hall, the chief marketing officer of Quiznos, told The New York Times. Indeed, his ad budget is one-seventh to one-eighth the size of Subway's, which recently hired Fallon Worldwide to craft its ads.

Quiznos could easily have sought to offset the spending disadvantage with shocking, titillating or provocative ads designed to gain notoriety, as is the wont of most advertisers chasing the youth market. Instead, Quiznos is going the whimsical route, hoping to tickle the funny bone of potential customers with an insouciant package of deliberately crude animation, tacky dialogue and singing voices as out of sync as Justin Timberlake was 'NSync.

"The characters are sort of 'take us as we are' kind of guys," Kerry Feuerman, Martin's vice-chairman and group creative director, told The New York Times, "evangelists for the brand whose enthusiasm is infectious."

Whether being infectious is any more palatable for food advertising than being mistaken for rodents is debatable. What's not arguable is the cheerful appeal of the campaign, especially the wacky characters, called Spongmonkeys, created by Britain's own Joel Veitch, whose website, www.rathergood.com, is home to them and their kitty, hippo and other critter counterparts (the Quiznos jingle the monkeys warble is based on We Like the Moon, which the Spongmonkeys can be found performing at www.rathergood.com/moon_song/).

The outpouring of vitriol aimed at Quiznos may well be coming from folks who don't understand the deliberately cheesy, tongue-in-cheek style of the campaign. Even in this era of microtargeting, consumers for whom a campaign isn't intended still may come across it, in this case an older audience that doesn't surf the internet and wouldn't know a Quiznos from a quidnunc.

Come to think of it, most of the gripes probably are coming from quidnuncs (look it up, look it up).

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