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Alec Baldwin for Wegmans' Supermarkets: Now It's Hip to Be Unironic

Upstate New Yorkers are agog at Alec Baldwin's completely unironic TV ads for a local grocery chain, Wegmans. There's a cute backstory about why Baldwin is doing these ads -- his mom shops there -- but they illustrate one of the more charming new trends in advertising: to cast a famous person against type in a commercial, have them play it straight, and then leave consumers to guess what the heck is going on.

The Wegmans' spots are baffling in the sense that if you've ever seen 30 Rock or Saturday Night Live you expect some kind of gag ... but none appears. It's just Baldwin expressing uncharacteristic delight over Wegmans' bakery section: "I don't want to bother my mother with choosing so let's just have one of each!"

Wait, what? Why? In a second ad, Baldwin is ecstatic to discover the chain's $6 meals: "A healthy, delicious chef-prepared meal for $6? I can't get a cup of coffee in New York for $6!"

(FYI, suburbanites: You can easily find a cup of coffee in the city for less than $6.) The campaign's lack of humor is especially bizarre because it stems from a riff Baldwin went into on the Late Show With David Letterman about suggesting to his mom, Carol, that she move to California. "And leave Wegmans?" she replies, aghast.

Wegmans' refusal to extend the joke by using Baldwin in the most unimaginative way possible is what makes the ads so effective. Viewers are left asking, Did I just see what I think I saw? Or did I miss something?

You get the same reaction when watching William Shatner's ad for the Goodman Acker law firm. Or the Jeff Martin law firm. He's a comical blowhard in everything else he does, but for Goodman Acker he really cares about your disability benefits. (And Shatner did his own supermarket commercial a lo-o-o-ong time ago, for Loblaws.)

Something similar is going on with Novartis' (NVS) Excedrin campaign featuring actress Elisabeth Moss, who plays Peggy Olson on Mad Men. The spot was first aired in 2005, before Moss became famous as the put-upon creative director at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. Novartis got lucky that Peggy is such an appealing character on the show, so they've brought the spot back. It doesn't matter whether you see Moss or Olson in the ad, they're both essentially endorsing the pain reliever. And there's a bit of fun to be had when viewers ask, Hey, isn't that Peggy from Mad Men?

And, of course, there's Brooke Shields' sudden interest in La-Z-Boy recliners.

The messages come with a slight amount of baggage in that viewers naturally ask, Do these guys really need the money that badly? But that's nothing compared to the extra attention.