Looking Back at an Extraordinary Year

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To the handful of you still employed in advertising/media-related fields, good tidings of the season!

To others, perhaps those of you experiencing the slight softening in the advertising economy from the comfort of your own residence, greetings, as well!

And to all our troops overseas who depend on us for keeping tabs on the marketing industry back home, a very special welcome to this, our merry 'n' traditional AdReview Year-in-Review Review, the annual recapitulation of everything that took place in this space from Jan. 1 to about July 8, which, due to internal production requirements, was our deadline for this copy.

The year 2001 was certainly eventful in AdReview, which meted out a mean score of 2.57 stars, up dramatically from 2000's 2.42 stars, reflecting either a decreasing degree of advertising suckitude or the fact that this small, managed sample is statistically irrelevant.

And, believe us, the answer is b) statistical anomaly.

Triumphs and travesties
This was a year of several triumphs -- from E-Trade, Ikea, Lipton Sizzle & Stir, Nascar and others -- and the usual overflowing cornucopia of travesties, led by Miller Genuine Draft's adolescent vulgarity, Hasbro's revolting stunt for the Nemesis Factor puzzle, Bank of America's insulting "tribute" to the blind, Tricon Global Restaurants' twin idiocies from Taco Bell and KFC and General Motors' serial shamelessness.

And we will recall all of those for you -- not that you care, because the only things on anybody's mind at the moment are the dreadful economy, the horror of Sept. 11 and war.

We therefore will devote the upper portion of this Year in Review to the advertising that came out of 9/11. More good than bad, we're pleased to report. American Express ( Ogilvy & Mather, New York) took a poignant tour of retail lower Manhattan to gently remind New Yorkers that shops and restaurants were reopened for business. The City of New York ( BBDO Worldwide, New York) trotted out local icons -- human and otherwise -- to do the same for out-of-town tourists. The Twin Towers Fund (Toolbox Advertising, New York), taking advantage of cruel serendipity, used 3-year-old interview footage of firefighter Timothy Stackpole to dramatize firefighter dedication. The interview was plain, understated and enormously powerful; Stackpole had died at the World Trade Center.

GM: Beneath contempt
But the conduct of some others was beyond belief and beneath contempt. Chief among them was General Motors, whose "Keep America Rolling" zero-interest sales promotion (McCann-Erickson Worldwide, Troy, Mich.) was one of the most unseemly episodes in the history of American marketing. Want to help your country? Buy a Buick. How dare they? Ford had a nearly-as-contemptible me-too version, but GM gets bonus credit for its part in a subsequent joint effort with the United Auto Workers to donate 50 trucks to the FDNY. The gesture was lovely; the commercial bragging about it (McCann again) was disgraceful.

There's a trend for you: Philip Morris, Anheuser-Busch, Southwest Airlines, GM-UAW and many others, making modest charitable donations vastly outstripped by expenditures for advertising self-congratulation. These people know no shame.

As long as the subject is ethics, and since we are at war, let's revisit the U.S. Army's bizarre "Army of One" recruitment campaign ( Leo Burnett USA, Chicago), appealing not to self-improvement, not to ambition, but to an exaggerated sense of self-esteem. Oh, it worked like a charm, as bait-and-switch often does. The Army is not, has never been and will never be about one soldier. How many young recruits, sold on some New Age fantasy of cultivating their individuality, face being shipped out, en masse, to the hostile, anonymous reality of war?

Far more honest was the Navy's recruitment effort ( Campbell-Ewald, Warren, Mich.) dubbed "Accelerate Your Life." Splitting the difference between "Be All You Can Be" and "Join the Navy, See the World," this campaign was about ceasing to be a slacker, or a loser in some numbing job, in favor of genuine, heart-pounding adventure. It's about the rush, dude. The adrenaline. The experience. Even the danger. The X-Games, basically, only with heat-seeking missiles instead of skateboards. "If someone wrote a book about your life," the voice-over asked, "would anyone want to read it?" Harsh, but fair -- and quite motivating.

Sex fantasies
Here's what isn't motivating, to sell cold-filtered beer: sub-adolescent sex fantasies. But Miller Genuine Draft (J. Walter Thompson USA, Chicago) continued to plumb the depths of juvenile fixations with masterpieces like this: a young guy headed for the apartment-house laundry with a basket of clothes and two MGDs. There he encounters, as of course you'd expect, a gorgeous neighbor in the midst of stripping to her bra and panties -- you know, as women always do in public places. She stuffs her washer full, so he offers her a beer and the unused space in his machine. She replies by tossing in her bra.

Hasbro's idea of introducing the Nemesis Factor (Jordan, McGrath Case & Partners, New York) was to show human brains being pureed in a blender and submerged in a deep-fryer. The true nemesis factor, of course, is the alarming number of insufferable smart-asses in the industry too arrogant or too stupid to grasp a simple concept: Commercials are not programming. Nobody has chosen to see one. TV spots simply appear, and in exchange for viewer indulgence, advertisers owe a measure of restraint and respect for the sensitivities of everyone in the room. Not just the target. Everyone. That is the advertiser's unspoken compact with viewers. And Hasbro has broken it.

In other advertrocities, let's discuss who has no vision: 1) the woman hero of the Bank of America commercial (Bozell, New York), who defeats her judo master in spite of being blind. 2) Bank of America.

What message do we send the disabled -- to say nothing of the able-bodied -- with our insistence on viewing them as pitiful wretches unless they're winning improbable judo matches? Must we idealize the handicapped by suggesting that "achievement" begins at some level of virtuosity bordering not on the heroic but more like the freakish? Can't we just recognize achievement over mundane obstacles that are hard for us to even imagine? Evidently not.

KFC and Taco Bell
As for Taco Bell (Foote, Cone & Belding Worldwide, San Francisco) and KFC (BBDO Worldwide, New York), two important notes: There is no connection between the high-tech culture and fast-food quesadillas. Sorry. None. And deep-fried chicken is not "slow-cooked," no matter what Jason Alexander says. Of course, it doesn't matter what Alexander says. As he is playing his Seinfeldian, pompous, deceitful buffoon character, nobody will believe him, anyway.

There, we've dispensed with the calamities. On to the meager, overshadowed and very nearly incidental good news. Nascar ( Y&R Advertising and Impiric, Chicago) cultivated its growing upscale audience with a campaign titled "How bad have you got it?" One spot showed a couple in bed trying to sleep while through the partially open window they listen to someone gunning an engine outside. The wife gets up ... and opens the window all the way. Fabulous.

Likewise a campaign for Lipton's Sizzle & Stir ( Bartle Bogle Hegarty, New York) showing the dynamics of the typical American family at dinnertime -- only the family consists of third-tier celebrities mouthing all the stereotypical dialogue. For instance, Pat Morita and Little Richard are the kids, bickering over who sets the table. Inspired.

And likewise a racy spot to promote Ikea's ( Carmichael Lynch, Minneapolis) "You can't be too organized" sales event. A couple looks across the way at the organized living space of an Ikea-decorated apartment. The guy dismisses the neighbors as "uptight," but then, in the uptight apartment, we see the wife, in a leather teddy, chasing her hubby around with a whip -- an irresistible way to convey bright style, utilitarian value and excitement all at the same time.

E-Trade: 4-star effort
The year's only 4-star commercial wouldn't have been one if it hadn't appeared on the Super Bowl, where it got extra credit for referencing its progenitor from the previous year's game. Nonetheless, E-Trade's parody of the '60s' tearful Indian anti-pollution PSA was a masterpiece -- substituting, for the dignified, wounded Iron Eyes Cody, the now-familiar E-Trade chimp on horseback, surveying the ruins of the dot-com economy. Hilarious. Hilarious. Hilarious.

Finally, 2001 gave us maybe the oddest pair of campaigns in the history of its category. One from Brown & Williamson (Fitzmaurice, Lewis & Partners, Louisville, Ky.), one from the Vector Group (Trone Advertising, High Point, N.C.), both introducing brands of next-generation low-tar cigarettes.

The taglines for Advance and Omni, respectively? "All of the taste ... Less of the toxins." And "Reduced carcinogens. Premium taste." As God is our witness. Those are the actual slogans, because apparently "Killing you softly" has copyright protection.

In a year of horror, when the media endlessly documented how death can come suddenly, leave it to the tobacco industry to propose, as an alternative, slow-cooking. For the anti-tobacco crowd fearful that smokers will be lulled into a false sense of security, more bad news: Neither company hired Jason Alexander to do the pitch.