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THE YEAR'S BEST & WORST TV SPOTS

Bob Garfield Assesses 2002

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Golly, could 2003 really be upon us?

It seems like it was only a year ago that we were bidding farewell to 2001, and here we are, only 12 months later, taking final stock of 2002. Could 365 days

One of only three 4-star ads in 2002 was the Britney Spears Super Bowl spectacular for Pepsi.
have flown by so quickly? To us, it seems like between 359 and 3611/2 days, although the ones when our back was out and when Ashcroft was on TV seemed much longer, so let's say that, in all, it felt like about only about 364 days ago when we last sat down to do this.

Anyway, let's get right to the numbers: Although the state of advertising quality around the globe is a sorry one, in our opinion, the 2002 average AdReview score of 2.5 stars once again isn't all that harsh. It's down from 2.57 stars in 2001, but still far ahead of the dismal 2.42 rating of a year earlier.

What does the score mean?
What does that AdReview Year-in-Review review not-particularly-mean mean mean? Probably not much, because the sample is small and heavily managed. If the composite rating tells us anything at all, it is that the AdReview staff is composed of tender, understanding souls projecting a serene humanity that should inspire readers the world over.

The hard statistics also do not reflect what a weird advertising year it was, not only because of the holding-company accounting messes and the dust-bowl ad economy, but because 2002 was a year in which the industry was asked to accomplish things advertising has seldom -- at least in this society -- been called upon to do.

So before we get to the triumphs and advertrocities, let's revisit the year in propaganda.

Anti-drug ads
The first clue that we're living in a different world came during the Super Bowl, when the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, via WPP Group's Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide, New York, ran a spot linking casual drug use to the funding of terrorism. The evidence is a bit thin (especially concerning marijuana), and the legalization lobby correctly observes that removing recreational drugs from the black market would end drug crime virtually overnight.

But the spot, and the rest of the campaign that followed, introduced a legitimate and compelling argument: As long as drug use is a crime, it is not a victimless one. There are ugly consequences up and down the supply chain.

The next strange animal was the Freedom Campaign, an Ad Council effort to remind Americans that our freedoms aren't just some meaningless civics lesson but priceless blessings of democracy. The ads were generally well-crafted, but the most striking -- a Twilight Zone-esque glimpse at how an America without civil liberties might look -- was more chilling and ironic than intended. The supposedly apocalyptic scenario of federal agents shadowing our personal library activities had already come to pass, among other infringements, in the repulsively named Patriot Act.

Beware. It can happen here. And it is.

Politics and petro-nomics
Then, speaking of the dangers of subordinating human rights to the dubious protection of national security, came the Saudi Arabia campaign. The "friendship" with this politically repressive kingdom has been the ultimate expression of Cold War politics and petro-nomics for decades. But now that the royal family has been caught financing radical Islam abroad as a way to inoculate itself from overthrow at home, Washington is waking up to the consequences of Faustian bargains. And the Saudi response?

Blame the media, of course. The ads, from Washington escort service Qorvis Communications, ridicule the idea of listening to newspaper editorials instead of the carefully worded faint praise from American politicians who must choke explicit damnation lest the flow of oil be interrupted.

"Conflicting views can distort what you see and hear," one ad says, and it's correct. In fact, there is a word for that process: democracy.

Reaching out to Muslims
That may be too alien a concept for the Arab world to grasp fully, which may explain an equally peculiar -- albeit benign -- campaign by the U.S. State Department and Interpublic Group of Cos.' McCann-Erickson Worldwide, New York, to reach out to Muslims around the globe. The first spot focuses not on the benefits of Western democracy, but rather on the pluralistic domestic scene in the U.S., where Muslims and Christians, Hindus and Jews all live together in peace and harmony. Hey, kids, let's sing along!

There is just one moon.
And one golden sun.
And a smile means
Friendship to ev'ryone.
Though the mountains divide
And the oceans are wide
It's a small world after all!

The "America, Land of Tolerance" claim is mainly true, but utterly irrelevant to the target audience, who don't seem to obsess over whether the U.S. is hospitable to Muslims. What they obsess about is Israel, political repression at home, grinding poverty, and hopelessness and betrayal by the West (see above: realpolitik) for decades. The campaign is thus utterly naive.

All right, so much for advertising's uneven 2002 success in the marketing of ideas. Let us now turn to advertising's uneven success in the marketing of consumer goods and services.

Three 4-star ads
We are pleased to report that in 2002 there were not one, not two, but three commercials reviewed here that merited 4 stars. Often there is none, and, as we've observed, creative output has been generally dreadful, so the achievements of General Motors Corp.'s Saturn (Omnicom Group's Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, San Francisco), Nike (Wieden & Kennedy, Portland, Ore.) and Pepsi-Cola Co.'s Pepsi (Omnicom's BBDO Worldwide, New York) are all the more impressive. Pepsi opened the year with its Super Bowl Britney Spears spectacular, in which the doe-eyed pop tart was put in period costumes to sing period jingles going back to the '50s.

Irresistible.

Saturn and Goodby, after getting off on the wrong foot with some off-putting dealer spots, came back with a magnificent paean to the automotive life: a car ad without cars. Instead, we saw -- brilliantly choreographed -- people going about their business on foot, as if they were behind the wheel, backing out of driveways, stopping for lights, etc. "When we design cars, we don't see sheet metal," the voice-over says. "We see the people who may someday drive them. Introducing the redesigned L-Series, the Vue and the all-new Ion. It's different in a Saturn."

Saturn is one of the few marketers with the reputation to make such a claim, and the brief end-frame glimpse of the actual cars reassured consumers that Saturn had nothing to hide.

Strange pedestrian behavior
Then there was "Tag," from Nike, the Grand Prix winner at Cannes. The spot took to the streets of Toronto, where it captured some strange behavior by pedestrians -- behavior that soon revealed itself to be the world's biggest-ever game of tag. Not only was the cleverly choreographed spectacle cool to watch, "Tag" was at last a statement of the one aspect of sport Nike for the past 15 years has left unsaid: It's fun to play.

Beyond such masterpieces, the year offered many other delights, as well. Animated juice bottles from Cadbury Schweppes' Snapple (Interpublic's Deutsch, New York), a charming pestilence of butterflies from the Microsoft Network (McCann-Erickson, Seattle), a hilarious Valentine's Day scenario from Anheuser-Busch's Bud Light (Omnicom's DDB Worldwide, Chicago) pointing up the difference between men and women, a solid radio (!) campaign (DeVito/Verdi, New York) for the National Thoroughbred Racing Association and, more astonishing still, a good Coke commercial -- a witty montage of Coke iconography with a hip-hop spirit -- from McCann-Erickson, New York.

That's correct: a good Coke commercial. You read it here first.

And as long as we're speaking of miracles, 2002 was the year when both Sears, Roebuck & Co. (Ogilvy, Chicago) and J.C. Penney Co. (DDB, Chicago) had smart, funny, memorable work on television. That last happened ... never.

Complete embarrassment
Don't think the AdReview staff went soft, however. Along the way of chronicling the triumphs, we managed to notice some disasters, such as the pitiful "Your Marriott awaits" branding campaign from McCann-Erickson, New York; the lame introduction of AOL 7.0 from Interpublic's Gotham, New York; the confusing new Jerry Seinfeld work for American Express Co. (Ogilvy, New York); and the almost criminally empty spots for Levi's (Bcom3-backed Bartle Bogle Hegarty, New York). Each, in its own little way, is a complete embarrassment.

But, as always, there are embarrassments, and there are outrages. This year, only two spots merited the uncoveted 0 stars rating. One was Saudi Arabia and the other was also an advertiser soiled by dirty oil. We refer, of course, to Midas, the muffler and auto repair chain.

Sagging breast gag
In the debut spot from Cliff Freeman & Partners, New York, an old lady walked in to take advantage of the shocks-and-struts special -- i.e., the pneumatic pistons that keep the car body level and upright. But she didn't want them for her car; she wanted them for her breasts, which she displayed to the Midas counter man.

Yuchh. First, it was gratuitously gross as an image. It was also a long way to go for a very slight connection to the sales message. Thirdly -- and most shockingly of all, for that historically hilarious agency -- it wasn't even remotely funny.

It's just a lucky thing Attorney General John Ashcroft didn't see it. The man who ordered drapes be placed over the Justice Department's bare-breasted statuary might have jailed the whole agency indefinitely without formal charges. And the way this country's going, nobody would have complained.

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