This isn't about the millennium. It isn't about the fin de siecle. It isn't about the New Era, the old century or anything else but one damn year in TV advertising.
Yes, you have stumbled upon the annual Ad Review Year in Review review, which the staff is hurriedly churning out on our way to do some last-minute Christmas shopping, which we may never get to, inasmuch as we still haven't finished last year's Christmas shopping or, for that matter, the thank-you notes from our Bar Mitzvah.
A FASCINATING YEAR
But before we run along, we'd like to make an observation: While 1999 offered very little in the way of truly indelible advertising, it was nonetheless a fascinating year. There was a four-star campaign for H.J. Heinz Co.'s ketchup(!) ( Leo Burnett Co., Chicago); a four-star spot for DaimlerChrylser's Jeep; an explosion of funny and occasionally worthwhile dot-com advertising; a whole new category (starring Denny's and Texaco) of racial contrition; a daring series of live ads for the new Ford Focus; a refreshing, riveting breakthrough campaign for The Gap; and jawdropping disgraces from Procter & Gamble Co.'s Pampers, McNeil Consumer Products' Tylenol Allergy Sinus formula and Just For Feet.
No fewer than 12 ads or campaigns received 3 1/2 stars, which is as high as you can be rated without discovering a rare insight, a revolutionary creative solution or other genuine Big Idea.
Meantime, General Motors Corp.'s Cadillac ads (D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles, Troy, Mich.) showed signs of life after 30 moribund years, Nike's arrogant Alpha Project utterly tanked, tobacco company Lorillard aired anti-tobacco messages, Philips Electronics casted a flat-TV spot with Eleonora Ivone, the most beautiful woman ever born. And several campaigns -- most notably Southwest Airlines, Burger King Corp. and Just For Feet -- abruptly disappeared after being revealed in this space for the boondoggles they were.
TRIED TO BE FUNNY
The mean star rating was 2.47, up from 2.44 in 1998, for what little that suggests in a sample so managed and so small. More significant is that 64.4% of them tried, with mixed success, to be funny. This is one of advertising's few bonafide megatrends -- but it is due for a correction. That could come as quickly as Super Bowl XXXIV, when a dozen dot-coms employ dot-comedy to break through the clutter and instead just run together indistinguishably.
That phenomenon was triggered, of course, by this year's Super Bowl, when Monster.com and Hotjobs.com squared off in the same category and registered a bazillion Web site hits. Copycats, however, will be punished under the law of diminishing returns.
Even if they go belly-up, though, they can't suffer more humiliation than Just For Feet, which last January aired a "humorous" Super Bowl spot from Saatchi & Saatchi, Rochester, New York. It featured a Kenyan runner who was tracked like an animal by white mercenaries in a Humvee, drugged unconscious and shod against his will -- and against centuries of Kenyan tradition -- in Just For Feet sneakers. An uproar, beginning right here, ensued.
Shamed by charges of neocolonialism and racism, Just For Feet apologized, pulled the spot and sued Saatchi for malpractice.
Yet, that ad was not the year's greatest outrage. That dishonor belongs to Pampers, via D'Arcy's New York office, which used a dying child to highlight the good works of a charity called Give Kids the World, in turn to get a summer spike on disposable-diaper sales. The ad was exploitative of the child's plight and of the viewer's emotions. Moreover, by borrowing interest from a worthy charity, this "cause marketing" promotion cynically used sick kids the way Burger King uses Pokemon. We asked readers if they agreed with our disgust. By a ratio of 3 to 1, they did.
On the other end of the scale, we may have exhibited a slightly irrational exuberance in awarding four stars to a spot from Jeep (FCB Worldwide, Southfield, Mich.).
The commercial shows the Grim Reaper jauntily skipping through life, whistling and doing good deeds. The joke is charming, but it is the idea -- and the tagline -- that got us. "Jeep. How will it change you?" is so strong, so vivid, so insightful it could drive Jeep advertising for a decade. Alas, its creators don't seem to recognize it as the Big Idea it surely is.
HEINZ HITS MARK
Not so at H.J Heinz Co.
After decades of namby-pamby ketchup advertising focused on thickness, Heinz and Burnett finally are looking outward at its core audience -- i.e., the children, teenagers and young adults who use ketchup indiscriminately. The result is an extraordinary synthesis of product and consumer focus, highlighting the attributes of the brand in the language and attitude of the heavy users.
Example: "Heinz tomato ketchup doesn't mean to keep you waiting. It's not trying to be rude. But let's face it. It is rude. Heinz tomato ketchup. The rude ketchup."
The irreverent ketchup. The post-modern ketchup. The really, really, really smart ketchup.
Still, amid these fascinating triumphs, failures and newsworthy events, there is one ad we can't get out of our minds. It's not memorably poignant. It's in no way a creative or strategic breakthrough. It's not a hilarious vignette touting some digital business. In fact, it's as analog as it could be -- a straightforward, workman-like, 3-star spot for Sanford Corp.'s Sharpie markers (Ungar Group, Chicago).
It is, however, indelible.
The commercial shows the Sharpie marking various surfaces -- from a coffee mug to a floppy disk to aluminum foil -- without smudging. In other words, it brags about what the product does, and demonstrates it. Sharpie's existence had completely slipped our minds until that campaign broke and we were grateful for the reminder.
We also were grateful to be reminded what advertising, when it is unafraid simply to sell, has the power to do.