1995 Year in Review

By Published on .

Opportunism cuts into 4-star efforts

Meanest low rating shows there are new depths to plumb for dull advertisers

Tis the season! Festive decorations! Fellowship and good cheer!

And, joy to the world, it's time for the AdReview Year in Review review--this year with a special holiday bonus.

That's right, for the first time ever the ARYIRR has a subtitle: "1995, A Year of Contrasts"--a theme which, after heated internal debate, narrowly edged out "1995, A Year of Uncanny Similarities" and "Much Like 1994, Only With More Judge Ito."

But contrasts surely there were. For instance, it was an excellent year for vermin: frogs croaking for Budweiser, ants partying for Budweiser, plus, of course, electioneering in New Hampshire.

Yet it was a very poor year for anthropomorphism. First, Bill Clinton, in a rare gesture of Democraticness, tried to neuter Joe Camel. Then the Radical Fruit Co. of Spain animated vain, megalomaniacal lemons and oranges, who were then squeezed to death by a sadistic citrophobe. Then Charlie the Tuna made a comeback, apparently on Prozac, no longer suicidal but pathetically gagged and denuded of all personality. We kind of liked him when he was a boorish loudmouth with a Triborough accent and a perverse desire to be hooked and eaten--like Joey Buttafuoco with gills. But Star-Kist's new Charlie is trendy and mute and boring to the (alba)core.

Contrasts! Little Caesars was once again hilarious and brilliant introducing home delivery, while South African Airways was fatuously bragging about midair delivery. How uniquely heroic of the cabin crew to help when a passenger went into premature labor! And, under similar circumstances what would Air Zimbabwe do, smother the newborn with one of those little blue pillows?

A strange year it was. On the one hand, an exotic-looking beauty shaved for Schick Tracer FX, and another pranced around nude but for a strategically draped Karastan rug and another got so horny at the sight of a Mazda 626 that her eyes turned those of a panther in heat. On the other hand...well, actually, there is no other hand. So, never mind "Year of Contrasts." Make that, "1995: The Year When Exotic Beauties Shaved and Dressed in Rugs and So Forth."

It didn't seem like all that bad a year while it was going on, but when we tabulate the total stars awarded and divide by the number of ads reviewed we come up with the lowest mean rating--and the meanest low rating--in Ad Review's long and starried history: 2.36, on average (or 1.02 celsius).

Of course, as always, this is a statistically meaningless number, because of the heavily managed nature of the sample. For example, we reviewed Isuzu's eminently forgettable "Morocco" spot and charitably awarded it 2 1/2 stars. Had we but waited a few months, we might just as easily have reviewed the delightful, brilliant, wonderful, stirring and hilarious "toy store" spot, which would have netted at least 4 stars on a scale of 0 to 4, and maybe up to 11.

(On the other hand, although we editorialized about Calvin Klein and his contemptible kiddie-porn campaign, we never actually assigned it a rating. This would have dragged the average down yet further once we factored in: 0 for taste, 0 for decency, 0 for exploitation, 0 for cynicism, 0 for honesty and 4 for temporarily making us hate someone more than O.J.)

The net net of the whole thing is that an unfortunate outcropping of poor work marred a year that had its share of triumphs. Indeed, following a year in which no campaign merited 4 stars, 1995 had three of them.

Carlsberg Pilsner hilariously underlined the quality and homebrewed Danishness of "Our Beer" by depicting a hippie commune in which everything was shared--the TV, the toothbrushes, the love partners--except for the Carlsberg which, when a visitor eyes it, the owner dives for in a jealous panic.

From the U.K., Allied Dunbar showed a middle-aged family man who stumbles on a home pregnancy test kit. He confronts his daughters until, upon finding that his 40-something wife is expecting, turns to the camera and mouths, to Nat King Cole's voice, "There may be trouble ahead." It is the most hilarious, charming and engaging financial services spot we've seen in ages.

Then, from the U.S., was the ESPN campaign for "SportsCenter"--also hilarious, also charming, also engaging and also a brilliant demonstration of the network's unparalleled devotion to, and irreverence about, sports. New York Rangers goalie Mike Richter should get the Conn Smythe Trophy, or the Nobel Prize, for his performance.

A number of advertisers came close with 3 1/2 stars: Thom McAn, Budweiser (for both the ants and the frogs), Nike (Perry the bellhop), Lee Jeans, Wilson sporting goods (David and Goliath), Little Caesars, Celestial Seasonings and--with the most striking ad of the year--No Fear apparel. In a gutsy move to cultivate brand mystique, the Super Bowl closeup of a bull rider in the chute fearlessly refused to identify so much as the category in which No Fear competes.

For sheer reckless exuberance, however, there was nothing in 1995 like Barq's root beer's magnificently ridiculous promotion combining Magic Eye-like stereoptican technology with the tried 'n' true scratch 'n' sniff. The result? Stink 'n' Stare, for which we will never cease admiring (ex-) VP-Marketing Rick Hill.

Alas, however, the disappointments outweighed the triumphs. One such was Ketchum's TV campaign promoting its own creative excellence, featuring many quite bad commercials and one great one--which turned out to have been lifted from an N W Ayer spot a decade earlier. Please note: When doing advertising about your own brilliance, it is a disadvantage being dull and (we're assuming the best here) derivative.

On that score, director Tony Kaye was similarly derivative...of himself. His awful throw-in-everything-including-the-lady-with-cats-eyes campaign for Mazda was a toned-down version of his monumentally perverse and gratuitous Dunlop spot of a year ago. Although a Super Bowl ad claimed--dubiously--that pork is "The life of the party...the word on the street," in advertising circles it was the Mazda campaign, with its inadvertently entertaining excess of music, pyrotechnics, enigmatic imagery, randy babes and everything else.

The worst-rated (0 stars) ad of the year, a shameless--and shameful--stunt by Makita power tools, was a newspaper page ostensibly thanking the selfless volunteers at the Oklahoma City bombing scene.

"Makita Power Tools are with them in spirit and on the rescue site," the open letter read, a vulgar exercise in self-congratulation in the midst of unspeakable human tragedy.

Oldsmobile (1 star) was similarly tasteless with a stupid and ostentatious newspaper-ad play on the O.J. acquittal. "The Verdict Is In!" read the headline. Har har har.

Those, however, were ill-considered acts of opportunism. For carefully planned and painstakingly produced advertising, nothing in the AdReview year quite matched the campaign for Tele-Communications Inc. Two TCI spots--dark, bleak and claustrophobic--portrayed a cyberfuture impoverished of soul, hopelessly dividing the society along class lines. And only one force, one institution, one savior can save technological man from himself:

Cable TV.

We will spend yuletide continuing to try figuring out how. Our guess: it doesn't involve The Playboy Channel.

Copyright December 1995 Crain Communications Inc.

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