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VOL. 36 | NO. 15 | Friday, April 13, 2012

Finding humor in annoying attorney television ads

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When I entered law school in 1975, national and state bar associations pretty much prohibited attorneys from engaging in [whisper] advertising. Self-promotion by legal professionals – even in the Yellow Pages – is a product of the late 20th century. When the Supreme Court ruled in 1977 that the advertising ban for barristers was unconstitutional, it was big news!

Bar Association nabobs predicted the total abasement of the profession. They proclaimed their forecasting spot-on when the first of the ads containing the phrase “If we don’t win your case for you …” hit the print media, airwaves and television screens of America.

And now, 35 years down the road, we go, “ho-hum” when our late-night TV viewing is interrupted by a slam-bam, attention-getting ad featuring a lawyer encouraging us to call him or her immediately to sue a trucking company, battle the IRS or stave off those debt collectors.

The ads run the gamut. At one extreme, there is the lawyer in upstate New York who, as explosions of vehicles are shown on the screen, balls up his fist and shouts, “I cannot rip out the hearts of those who hurt you! I cannot hand you their severed heads! But I can hunt them down and settle the score!”

In the middle of the road, so to speak, there are thousands of lawyers who address the camera in a calm and scholarly manner, seated at a desk or standing in front of a shelf full of law books. Clearly, they want us to think that there is no better route to justice than through their offices.

But what recently captured my attention was a New York firm that chose, against the odds, to use a little humor in their ads. In one TV spot, a 30-something year-old female is sitting in her kitchen. She addresses the camera in a dead-pan manner:

“The pain was excruciating. It’s like I had this huge, really sharp machete chopping down on me every time I tried to move. It was the worst paper cut I ever had. They made that paper way too sharp.”

She raises her hand, showing a bandage on her index finger and then concludes: “Someone has to pay.” There then appears this message: “There are some cases even we can’t win. If you’ve been injured, call us, but keep in mind: You really need to be injured.”

In another spot, created by the same advertising firm, a male, also 30-something, tells about being in the middle of a really great video game. He pauses. Tears began to flow from his eyes.

“The power went out. My game was lost. I never thought the power company would do this to me. I have pain and suffering.” And, again, the tagline: “There are some cases even we can’t win.”

So, I’m guessing that out there in Readership Land, you have your favorite lawyer ads. Let me hear from you about them. I would not mind devoting another week to this timely topic.

(With thanks, and an apology, to Andrew Adam Newman of the New York Times, who wrote about this topic a couple of years ago.)

Vic Fleming is a district court judge in Little Rock, Ark., where he also teaches at the William H. Bowen School of Law. Contact him at vicfleming@att.net.

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