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Yahoo! News   Mon, September 09, 2002
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Business - USA TODAY
Nextel tries untraditional hero Dennis Franz in series of ads
Mon Sep 9, 7:26 AM ET

Michael McCarthy USA TODAY

There's a new breed of unlikely male stars on the pop culture scene.

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They're not just another pretty face. Sometimes they don't even have hair. But they have charisma by the bucketful. They're the gruff guys with the sensitive side, the muggers you want to give your money to.

Among unlikely sex symbols:

* With his shaved head and basso voice, Vin Diesel is the new action king of Hollywood.

* Hulking James Gandolfini makes viewer hearts race despite strangling stoolies and whacking rivals on HBO's The Sopranos ( news - Y! TV).

* Stocky, balding Dennis Franz has emerged as a romantic leading man on ABC's NYPD Blue ( news - Y! TV). Franz's character, Detective Andy Sipowicz, has even bared his backside on TV.

So what's the appeal of these regular guys?

''It's the same reason why Kelly Clarkson is so popular on American Idol. If she's the girl next door, these are the guys next door,'' says trend watcher Bob Dorfman of Pickett Advertising in San Francisco. ''They have an Everyman appeal. They stand out from the pretty boys and cookie-cutter models who are all over TV.''

The very different appeal of Franz, a Vietnam veteran who's made a career of playing tough TV cops, is what made Nextel cast him in a $150 million ad campaign touting its ''Direct Connect'' walkie-talkie feature.

''He's the anti-celebrity,'' says Mark Schweitzer, vice president of marketing for Nextel, which has signed up about 10 million subscribers for the long-range service. Ad agency Mullen in Wenham, Mass., creates the ads.

But Franz doesn't seem to be making a direct connection with consumers in Ad Track, USA TODAY's exclusive weekly poll.

Of those very familiar with the ads, only 16% like them ''a lot'' vs. the Ad Track average of 22%. ''We would have liked to score better,'' acknowledges Schweitzer. ''But it sounds like you use a very broad cross-section. Against our tracking of wireless business decision-makers, we did very well.''

Only 11% of respondents ''dislike'' the ads; the Ad Track average is 13%. Because of the margin of error, the difference isn't statistically significant.

Schweitzer says he's ''surprised'' that the dislike figures are that high. ''In our tracking, the (dislike figures) are almost not measurable. They are insignificant.''

Women like the Franz commercials more than men do: 19% vs. 15%. Mullen group creative director Jim Hagar says, ''He's a guy who has a strong personality. But he also has his vulnerable side. Maybe that appeals more to women.''

In an industry saturated with celebrity endorsers such as Jamie Lee Curtis and Catherine Zeta Jones ( news - web sites), Hagar believes that Franz was the right choice.

''One telco ad is sliding into the other. You can't tell them apart these days'' he says.

Franz has starred in two campaigns so far, including the current one that airs through December. But Nextel is hedging its bets on casting Franz in its 2003 ads. ''We have to ask ourselves: 'Has the joke been told?,' '' Schweitzer says.


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