Why to care about Y2K? Because, like the dreaded computer apocalypse, very little took place as advertised.
Underwritten by very expensive advertising, the Summer Olympics unfolded in Sydney, Australia--but nobody in America actually saw either the Games or the commercials-because they were lost in a thicket of poignant stories of insurmountable obstacles miraculously overcome. One obstacle notably not overcome: the 15-hour time delay.
The Super Bowl was mainly the Dot-com Bowl, as Web start-ups bet the farm on the new paradigm of advertise/generate awareness/boost your stock price. Unfortunately, most of them quickly fell victim to the Old Paradigm: piss away other people's money/piss off investors/lose the farm.
Thanks to the miracle of political advertising, Gov. George W. Bush soundly thrashed Vice President Al Gore. Imagine the money wasted by not simply dumping direct mail on the Supreme Court.
Yes, all in all, quite a year. Which is why, in this special Millennium Edition of the Annual Ad Review Year in Review review, we are proud to reveal the most confounding development of all: the Ad Review staff, that corps of supposedly flinty, pitiless skeptics, remained the biggest bunch of softies in the advertising-criticism universe.
Soft as a baby's uvula, that's what we were, issuing an average star rating in 1999 of 2.42 stars, down only slightly from 2.47 in 1999.
Considering how much of the industry's output truly and genuinely sucks, can we agree that this perennial average in the 2.4-2.5 range bespeaks nothing less than saintly generosity? Of course, we can. But sometimes . . . oh, you devils . . . sometimes magic occurs-as it did in Ad Review an unprecedented four times in the year 2000.
We acknowledge a possibly irrational exuberance in awarding 4 stars to E-Trade Securities for its hilarious Super Bowl ad from Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, San Francisco. Still-a chimpanzee lip-synching to "La Cucaracha," followed by this text: "Well, we just wasted 2 million bucks. What are you doing with your money?"-can you blame us?
For our other exuberances, however, we offer no equivocations.
An otherwise dully pretentious campaign from TBWA/Chiat/Day, New York, and photographer Annie Leibowitz for the 20th anniversary of Absolut vodka advertising contained one bona fide treasure: a portrait of Jerry Lewis.
The director-philanthropist-megalomaniac-clown had a seriousness in his eyes verging on a sadness. Expressive, poignant, dignified, it was the Nutty Professor meets Abraham Lincoln, as if shot by Karsch of Ottawa.
Oh, and he had a vodka glass crammed into his mouth. A triumph of wit, meaning and tone, reaffirming both the character of the subject and the character of the brand, it was an Absolut masterpiece.
Likewise a spot from Bensimon Byrne D'Arcy, Toronto, for Molson beer-a slow-building patriotic rant about vive le difference between Canada and the U.S.
BEER AS NATIONAL HERO
While it's genuinely pathetic that the nation's greatest monument of political speech is a beer commercial, the fact is this was brilliant advertising, making the product-the famously indigenous Molson Canadian-not only the hero but a national hero.
Then, from Fallon, Minneapolis, came the campaign for PBS. The best of three wonderful spots showed an opera buff shooting photo-booth pictures of himself in various extravagantly open-mouthed poses-which at home he assembles into a flip-book of himself lip-synching an aria from "Il Trovatore." The message: Amid the morbid tele-voyeurism that so inundates us, genuine artistic excitement and curiosity live. Gorgeous.
Now don't be impatient. In due course, we'll remind you why Benetton is still loathsome. First, more kudos. And why not? There was a vast amount of 3 1/2-star work in 2000, notably:
A fresh, extremely funny, knowing campaign from Y&R Advertising, Chicago, restaging H&R Block as a full-fledged financial-services company. Eleven serialized spots over 20 days in the life of a taxpayer went far to erase Block's tinge of seasonal, assembly-line unsavoriness and reposition it as the Starbucks of personal finance.
From Merkley Newman Harty, New York, yet another delight for Mercedes-Benz-about a 30-ish guy whose doctor has given him only 50 years to live, and he decides to live them with abandon. This take on the hedonism of the condemned permits the timid affluent to enjoy themselves, because life is too short for self-denial.
For Anheuser-Busch's Bud- weiser from DDB Worldwide, Chicago, a buoyant update of the "This Bud's for you" paean to the working person, along Sheryl Crow lines. This spot put the "good" into "feel-good," and reminds not only how charming jingles can be, but how insipid they don't have to be.
From Arnold Worldwide, Boston, for Volkswagen of America, finally, finally, finally Passat advertising the equal of the rest of the VW line. A young father tools around in his new sedan, marveling that he-man-child-is "responsible for the upbringing of another human being." The message? If VW is for your inner child, Passat is for your outer grown-up. Inspired.
Dude! J. Walter Thompson USA, Denver, managed to reach Generations X and Y about the Ford Focus with one, all-encompassing word of warning, question, exclamation and satisfaction.
And, above all, "Whassup?!" for Anheuser-Busch; DDB, Chicago, and filmmaker Charles Stone III hit upon not merely the latest beer-ad buzzword, not merely an inside-black-culture joke, not merely a universal expression of eloquent inarticulateness, but the ultimate depiction of male bonding. It's funny, it's real, it's beautiful and-because the agency and its client were not too proud to appropriate Stone's quirky demo film-it's Budweiser's forever.
In many other ways, 2000 was an eventful year. It gave us the first use of the color red in feminine hygiene advertising, thanks to Kotex and Ogilvy & Mather, Chicago (3 stars), which had the courage to discuss the side effects of menstruation-stained pants, let's say-without implying some sort of irredeemable feminine Original Sin.
The year gave us a rare case of pure adver-larceny: a spot for Cliff Castle Casino (0 stars) from Cramer-Krasselt, Phoenix, using the identical gag-a surprisingly unselfish professional athlete at a press conference-as 7Up used a year earlier.
The year also gave us Christo-pher Reeve, poster adult, in two ads about his paralysis.
One, a Super Bowl spot from Fallon for John Nuveen & Co.-Christopher walks!-was an unspeakably crass exploitation of celebrity tragedy (1/2 star). The other, from Focused Image, Alexandria, Va., for HealthExtras, let Reeve tell his terrifying story as a cautionary tale about disability insurance. Straightforward, moving and fair enough (3 stars).
And, of course, let history record that 2000 saw Procter & Gamble Co. sell Charmin with a bear defecating in the woods.
Yes, a cartoon bear, ecstatically wiping his ursine butt and walking away, leaving his mark (including the used toilet paper) on the forest floor. Yeah, he's a cartoon, but, for God's sake, if advertising as an industry can do one thing, it is to leave the tele-crapping to a bear minimum (1 star).
Along with those memorable moments, 2000 saw some memorably unmemorable moments in big, new, mega-advertiser mega-campaigns. Coca-Cola Co., via Edge Marketing, Los Angeles, ditched its transcendent "Always" tag in favor of the vastly inferior "Enjoy," and created an eminently forgettable campaign (2 stars) to make sure we hardly noticed.
Beleaguered Miller Lite moved to Ogilvy & Mather, New York, and immediately responded to rival Bud Light by mimicking Bud Light commercials, albeit not very well (1 1/2 stars.) And McDonald's, via DDB, Chicago, declared: "We love to see you smile" (2 1/2 stars.) No doubt they would. We'd love to see them clean up their restaurants and deal with their notoriously surly help.
But let's face it. You haven't come this far to read about the almosts. You're here for the how-dare-theys. So, finally, herewith a brief holiday reminiscence of the year's biggest disgraces:
Clairol, in a misguided attempt to be disarmingly "candid," used tortured syntax to renounce 40 years of its own revered marketing heritage. "Doesn't anyone tell the truth anymore?" the copy from Lois & Lois, New York, asks. "Clairol does: Every woman doesn't want to change her hair color. All women don't think blondes have more fun, don't want to be a redhead or even have people wonder, 'Does she or doesn't she?' " One of the most perversely self-destructive acts in advertising history. (1/2 star)
Pat Buchanan, in a last-ditch effort to get some presidential votes (and, therefore, federal dollars), resorted to hate speech in an anti-immigration ad from Love Advertising, Houston. The gag was a heart attack victim dialing 911 and getting a menu of foreign-language options. Ha. Ha. Buchanan, neo-fascist, didn't even get the lunatic vote (0 stars).
No Nonsense pantyhose, from McKinney & Silver, Raleigh, N.C., tried a scare tactic for middle-aged women: buy control-top hosiery or watch the hubby leave you for a younger woman. It's supposed to be funny, but it's a sick lie (0 stars).
On the subject of sick, ReliaStar Financial Corp., from Clarity Coverdale Fury, Minneapolis, tried to build brand awareness with this joke: Mom has a substantial ReliaStar portfolio, so let's kill her. We swear to God. Never mind the sophomoric amateurs who produced it; does the client who approved it still have a job? (0 stars)
For once, in its "Death Row" campaign, Benetton's self-styled "social consciousness" was applied in a provocative way: confronting the inhumanity of capital punishment by fleshing out the humanity of the condemned.
Faced with the resourceful artistry of Alberto Reyes-Camarena, who uses M&M's to paint in his cell ("I use the candies for their colors, and I make butterflies from them") or the nostalgic longings of William Jones ("The smell of waking up early in the morning . . . watching the dew, the aroma once the sun starts coming out"), perhaps we as a society would be less inclined to think of the condemned as beasts-and so to less regretfully kill them. But if the issue is worth exploring, what standing does Benetton have in exploring it? None whatsoever.
There is no escaping that this effort, like all of its pretentious predecessors, was fundamentally brand-image advertising. Not journalism. Not art. Not politics. Not public service. And no brand has the right to increase its sales on the fates of condemned men and women, much less their slaughtered victims.
How ironic: a bad idea, well executed (0 stars).
Copyright December 2000, Crain Communications Inc.