1998: A year when some stuff happened

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As somebody once said--hell, as everybody once said--what a year. Not only were there quite a few days in it, but many things occurred, including a number of events and so forth.

We can't provide much detail because we left our notes on the subway. However, 1998 will certainly be remembered as the year when Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa electrified the baseball world, when John Glenn returned to space and when an out-of-control free-world leader finally was chastened and held accountable for carelessly, self-indulgently, adolescently forcing a famously twisted Dick on extremely young adults.

But enough about Miller Lite.

A PRETTY GOOD YEAR

In this, the annual Ad Review Year in Review review, the staff is pleased to observe this was a pretty good year for TV advertising. Although the mean Ad Review star rating was only 2.44 (down slightly from 1997's 2.49, which itself was lower than average) the truth is the number is never statistically significant, derived as it is from a small and decidedly non-random sample.

Although there was not a single four-star commercial, there was a large number of 3 1/2-star efforts--the largest number in the glorious, 13-year history of this, the most widely read advertising-criticism column ever written in Washington by a native Philadelphian with inflammatory arthritis.

And although the year was marred by unspeakably bad work-- from Clairol's Herbal Essence, Diet Coke, Camel cigarettes, First Union Bank, Archer Daniels Midland, the Episcopal New Church Center, SnackWell's, the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Republican Party--there seemed to be fewer than usual mindlessly irrelevant exercises in goatee-stroking self-entertainment.

Instead, in what we hope to be a trend, the best advertising identified how the product was most relevant to the target consumer and created commercials racing headlong to the point.

SLICES OF LIFE

The technology/communications category, taking up where it left off in '97, offered prime examples. Network Associates (Think New Ideas, Los Angeles) presented a chilling and maniacal, pierced and tattooed computer hacker to frighten companies into protecting their data systems. Ameritech (Ammirati Puris Lintas, Chicago) used precious, undisturbed slices of quiet family life to dramatize a service that keeps telemarketers from annoying you. And AT&T Corp. (Y&R Advertising, New York) added to its magnificent campaign of similar life slices to flesh out the merits of its various phone features.

St. Thomas Health Services (Endres Eng Wilson, Nashville), meanwhile, used a dramatic--but not melodramatic--slice of life-and-death, documenting a patient's risky torn-aorta surgery to instill a sense of quiet competence.

Others used "real people" to strong effect, as well. Kraft Foods (J. Walter Thompson USA, Chicago) recorded mundane-but-meaningful family activities to show how the advertisers' products--which are seen, glancingly, on display--combine with family values to enhance our lives. Mail Boxes Etc. (Kenneth C. Smith Advertising, San Diego) gave away its million-dollar-plus Super Bowl 30 seconds to a tiny customer, underscoring its commitment to small business.

And Pert Plus ( Leo Burnett USA, Chicago) shampooed women on the street to demonstrate wittily the surprising ungumminess of the reformulated 2-in-1 shampoo/conditioner.

FROZEN IN TIME

Others were a bit more fanciful and stylized, yet equally determined to find--or raise--the pulse of the consumer. The Gap's (in-house) "Khakis Swing" frozen-moment jitterbug froze young audiences to its captivating style. In a campaign that could have been titled "Midlife Crisis: The Accelerated Plan," the Mitsubishi Galant ( Deutsch, Santa Monica) used funny vignettes to discourage young men from squandering their youth in a minivan or an old Buick.

Wisk detergent (J. Walter Thompson USA, New York) comically caricatured the modern woman's many conflicting duties--from locating household items to encouraging her husband to controlling frizz--and then pointed out, in a tone resigned but unresentful, that "we still have to do the laundry." And Miller High Life (Wieden & Kennedy, Portland, Ore.) gently lampooned heavy duct-tape use and other dead-on tics of blue-collar life to speak to the devoted beer drinker in terms he could understand.

The failure to do that, of course, was the fatal flaw of the Miller Lite campaign ( Fallon McElligott, Minneapolis), although in the campaign's last gasps it had finally found its groove. The best, about a fat guy dancing in his underwear because the Lite cap says "Twist to Open," at long last had more to do with beer than with absurdist creative ostentation.

(On the other hand, in the category of the exception proving the rule, the equally post-modern Bud lizards from Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, San Francisco, are about neither the product nor the consumer. But they were hilarious and wonderful and somehow--maybe because they are universally known as the Bud lizards--supportive of the brand.)

BEST WAS LEAST NECESSARY

Maybe the best campaign of the year was the least necessary one. When the new VW Beetle was introduced, it was a sure-fire success--a piece of automotive modern art, highly evocative of the beloved Beetles of old, on a vastly improved car at a reasonable price. The car is simply adorable, a potent advertisement for itself.

But so are the ads for itself (Arnold Communications, Bos-ton). "The engine's in the front," says one, evoking Beetle nostalgia while disabusing fears about its underpowered heritage. "But its heart's in the same place." Meanwhile, the car simply rotates before your eyes, allowing you to love it from every angle. Drivers wanted, buyers found.

Now then, enough praise. We are choking on our good tidings. Let's move on to the aforementioned disgraces, reiterate our contempt and get on the road before the holiday traffic gets ugly.

SnackWell's (Foote, Cone & Belding, New York) has "improved" its non-fat snacks line by adding . . . fat. "We like to think snack shouldn't be just about feeding yourself," one spot said, incredibly, "but in some small way about feeding your self-esteem." Alas, eating to feel better isn't a character builder; it's a symptom.

SORRY, WRONG MESSAGE

God only knows what the Diet Coke campaign (Wieden & Kennedy, Portland) was a symptom of. A series of screwy vignettes about a dysfunctional family was pointless, annoying and in no way illuminating about anything but the ability of a "creative" agency to foist nonsense on the client and the public.

Same goes for the unveiling of the leviathan-by-merger First Union Bank, which used overproduced special effects (Publicis & Hal Riney, San Francisco) to communicate exactly the wrong message: the advertiser is a looming, distant colossus. Just what banking customers most despise.

Two of the oddest campaigns of the year come courtesy of Levi's ( TBWA/Chiat/Day, Playa del Rey, Calif.). One, boasting about the uncomfortableness of so-called "hard jeans," was as abrasive as the pants it promoted, and quickly tanked. Now a brand campaign trots out very charming young people sharing bits of personal history and philosophy. But what they speak of in this cynical, pandering series--including a teenage boy who cheerfully admits to drug use--is mainly self-destructive. What is this, Calvin Clow jeans?

Nearly as reprehensible is the Camel cigarettes print campaign (Mezzina/Brown, New York) from R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. The juvenile satires of viewer-discretion advisories seem calculated to ridicule and undercut the Surgeon General's health warnings on cigarette use. The advertiser denies it, but if history is any guide, the advertiser is lying.

THE BIG LOSER IS . . .

Finally, the most offensive American ad of 1998, courtesy of the Episcopal New Church Center, Walkersville, Md. (Richards Group, Dallas.): a J.J. Sedelmaier Productions cartoon about a little boy who, rather than facing a boring day of fire-and-brimstone and Kumbaya at church, steps in the street--his arms outstretched as for crucifixion--in the path of a car.

As God is our witness.

The intended message of the production was that the Episcopal New Church Center offers a positive, loving, engaging style of worship versus the hell-and-damnation competition. The actual message is that this particular church is willing to denigrate the beliefs and cherished traditions of millions for the sake of a little attention.

Ho. Ho. Ho. Merry Christmas.

Copyright December 1998, Crain Communications Inc.

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