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ABC puts potty-mouth ads in potties

Audio messages in restrooms . . . and other wacky stunts

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PASADENA, Calif. — There is no place ABC won't go to get you to watch the network's shows — even the men's room.

The network has contracted with an advertising agency to place advertising for its sitcom "Norm" over some 1,000 public urinals in men's rooms in New York and Los Angeles. "It's the perfect thing for 'Norm,' " insisted Alan Cohen, ABC's executive vice president of marketing, advertising and promotion.

And these aren't just passive billboards. "There will be audio messages that, as you appear in front of this little stall area to do what maybe you consider your business, the audio will play," Cohen said.

As for the star of "Norm," he seemed a bit nonplussed by the whole thing. "It was just an idea that ABC had. It seemed like a funny idea," said Norm Macdonald. "I'm very embarrassed by all of that restroom stuff."

"Sometimes the low road is less congested," commented "Norm" executive producer Bruce Helford.

In the interest of educating critics, the network set up demonstrations of this particular advertising ploy in the men's room here at the Ritz-Carlton Huntington Hotel. And both male and female critics were invited to visit the urinals to experience this new form of advertising.

Which led to the surreal experience of being in a men's room alongside Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, listening to a recording of Norm Macdonald make various off-color comments designed to make us want to watch his show.

It's a mad, mad, mad, mad world, isn't it?

Not that the men's room campaign is the only unusual bit of advertising we can expect from ABC in the coming weeks. The network is also planning:

"Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" ads running on ATM machines.

What the network is calling "the ABC flying dot," a downloadable computer thing that is an organizer, a planner and a scheduler that also gives you ABC program schedules and information. And "it tells you to stop working on your computer and go watch television," said Mike Benson, senior vice president of advertising and promotion.

Posters on the floors of grocery stores. "So the next time you're traveling down the aisle with your shopping cart and maybe going through the beer aisle, you'd be thinking about 'Drew Carey,' " Benson said.

They'll be sending out something called "ABC E-peeks," a database with "personalized messages that are actually electronic sneak peeks of all of our new shows," Benson said.

Kentucky Fried Chicken will be sending its product home in yellow-and-black, ABC-themed containers — "7 million chicken buckets and barrels at the Colonel's."

In top 10 TV markets (Salt Lake is No. 36), people are going to have messages left on their answering machines encouraging them to watch ABC's Friday-night sitcoms. And ABC execs already perhaps know that this might not be such a great idea. "How offensive is this?" Cohen asked jokingly. "Now, we're not going to call you and bother you like — 'Sign up for a credit card.' We're not going to even want to talk to you if you answer your phone."

But they had no answer for what would happen if you do answer your phone. Apparently, the automated system will hang up on you, even if you've jumped out of the shower or rushed into the house to answer the call.

"Well, we don't see it as harassing. . . . We feel like it breaks us out of the box," Cohen said.

And the executives quickly discovered that what they intend isn't always what's conveyed. They introduced a couple of spots that featured people in what was obviously some sort of news footage, speaking a foreign language while an English "translation" encouraged people to watch the returning series "Whose Line Is It Anyway?" And they were unprepared for critics who questioned whether these were, as they appeared to be, refugees from Kosovo who were being taken advantage of.

As it turns out, they were Hungarians talking about a drug store . . . but how viewers will interpret the ads remains to be seen.

And, while it's too early to say how effective the urinal advertising will be, the fact that four of them were stolen from the Ritz-Carlton men's room within a couple of hours — not, we hope, by any of the TV critics — says something.