A decade of Ad Review stars

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It was 10 years ago when the course of Advertising Age, and advertising itself, changed forever. On Nov. 25, 1985, a Budget car rental commercial featuring the late midget actor Herve Villechaize was subjected to the first-ever Ad Review.

"Budget's Villechaize spot comes up short," was the tasteful headline, foreshadowing a decade of intermittently dyspeptic appraisal from a staff like none other in the glittering world of advertising criticism.

Seeking those "who either eat, sleep and breathe TV commercials--or who are already on the payroll doing work we've lost interest in," Ad Age management handpicked a team of dedicated professionals to analyze, deconstruct, praise, scold and take cowardly cheap shots at the output of an entire industry.

In the ensuing decade, agencies have come and gone, clients have merged like beads of mercury into amorphous blobs and the 15% commission has gone the way of communism, Lionel Richie and Beta. Yet the Ad Review team remains intact.

It would be easy, of course, to use this 10th anniversary as a flimsy pretext for recounting the staff's many triumphs--including, a) pitiless eviscerations of Cindy Crawford, Victor Kiam and (at every possible opportunity) Madge; b) courageous, explicit references to both famous-name sex organs; and c) the coining, in a savage review of a Renuzit spot featuring actors dressed up like fish, of the word "ichthyovestite."

Modesty and space limitations, however, forbid. We therefore devote this special edition of Ad Review not to the innumerable virtuosic displays of wisdom, perspicacity and simple human decency, but instead to the times when our staff has been flat wrong.

We're not speaking of minor errors in judgment, such as an April 1987 column predicting modest success for a Wendy's campaign called "Hot 'n' Juicy," even though the images were Greasy 'n' Revolting. For that matter, this isn't about errors of tone, either, as when in May 1989 we tried to point up the bad writing and performance in the otherwise ingenious introduction of Dave Thomas as Wendy's spokesman. Calling him a "steer in a half-sleeve shirt" (unfortunately the most quoted line in Ad Review history) was but one of several gratuitous cracks that obscured our approval of the advertising's concept, if not execution.

We also are not quite prepared to take the fall for "Nupe it with Nuprin," to which, in September 1991, we accorded four stars, only to see the brand nuped into oblivion by competing Advil when Bristol-Myers all but ceased buying media for it.

No, this is about unequivocally blowing it, about malfeasance and ignominy and picking the horse that breaks down at the first turn. It is about, in short, abject humiliation.

So don't worry. It won't take but a minute.

Equalactin. For a Pfizer product that dealt with irritable bowel syndrome by regulating water in the colon, we were smitten with the whimsical cartoon metaphor of the tortoise and the hare. And we were unstinting in our praise for agency Cline, Davis & Mann, New York. Alas, while the ad absolutely communicated the problem of constipation one day, diarrhea the next, consumers refused to believe one drug could mitigate both. The product was soon discontinued.

Jacko. After Mary Lou Retton, and before the Energizer bunny, came the hyperkinetic Australian rules football player who didn't so much barge into your living room to sell batteries as crash through the ceiling, urinate on the furniture and eat the dog. In September 1987, we wrote about him without suggesting deportation. We must have been drunk.

Neon. Our biggest blunders have been damning with faint praise. In January 1994, BBDO Worldwide, Southfield, Mich., got 2 1/2 stars for the unveiling of the Plymouth Neon--about one star too few. Fixating on how the front end looks like an AMC Pacer, we completely missed the friendly appeal of the cute little car that says "Hi." It was a brand-personality bonanza that we never even saw coming.

U.B.U. This campaign from Chiat/Day, New York, for Reebok International, full of bizarre characters in incongruous settings, made retailers irate, but struck us in October 1988 as sound strategy beneath a thin veneer of endearing weirdness. Why be like competing brands and play up athletic performance, we asked, when Reeboks "are mainly fashion items"? Well, Rolex is a fashion item, too, but it would find no market without the quality and performance pedigree that gives it cachet. The retailers were right. The 3 1/2 stars were wayyyy wrong.

Nike. "The campaign's theme," we wrote in August 1988, "is `Just do it,' an impatient-bordering-on contemptuous exhortation to the masses." Oh, we praised the work. Gave it three stars out of four. But we had lingering reservations about the harshness and uncommon severity of the tone. It was uncommon, all right. "Just do it," from Wieden & Kennedy, Portland, Ore., became the greatest advertising campaign of the era.

Saturn. We reviewed this campaign twice in the same month in October 1990, awarding it 2 1/2 stars for the first pool of spots and 2 1/2 stars for the second. And both times we were incredulous at the affected self-effacement and aw shucks folksiness of a product that clearly was a watershed in American industrial history. What did we miss? Only that the understatement was the underpinning of the greatest car advertising since Volkswagen in the '60s. From the outset, Hal Riney & Partners, San Francisco, has conveyed not just information and image, but also meaning--transcending the particulars of the product as no vehicle has done since the Beetle. As a direct result of the agency's approach, Saturn is not just a brand; it is a community.

E-mail Bob Garfield at EFPB35A@prodigy.com. Reviews are also available via Ad Age/Creativity Online on eWorld and the Web at http://www.adage.com.

Copyright November 1995 Crain Communications Inc.

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