Ad Review staff recalls its kinder, gentler 1996

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Could it be that time already? It seems as if only yesterday we were watching the New Year festivities in Times Square and marveling how, come to think of it, Dick Clark doesn't look so young after all. And yet, here it is, Yuletide again, and with it the festive Ad Review Year-in-Review review.

As always, first the numbers: In 1996, the ads evaluated in this space and in Ad Age International rated a mean 2.58 stars--although not nearly as mean as last year's 2.31 stars. This huge jump either suggests an overall strong year in advertising creativity, strategy and ethics or, more likely, nothing at all.

EXTREME EXAMPLES

That's because the 79 ads that were reviewed, also as always, were nothing remotely like a random sample. Rather, they were flagged by the staff for their extremes of inspiration, bankruptcy or just extremity itself. One notable example: the Rally's "Big Buford" campaign from McCabe & Co., New York, which seemed to be about one particular famous-name extremity ("Look at the size of that thing!") but turned out to be about a giant hamburger.

We awarded this vulgar and adolescent drivel a generous zero stars, which prompted Mr. McCabe to write the editor of this publication speculating whether our rating reflected an insecurity we might have about our own, personal, um, Buford. His letter was so childish and impertinent the editors simply took it . . . and printed it in our magazine.

Alas, we are saddened to report, shortly thereafter Rally's abruptly changed agencies.

Another astonishing exercise in bad taste was a European spot from Advico Young & Rubicam, Zurich, that focused on the buttocks of a man in swim trunks. A fly buzzed around his rear for no apparent reason until the endframe, which said "For ultimate cleanliness" and showed a roll of Hakle toilet paper. This zero-star spot was so gratuitously revolting it won only a Silver Lion at Cannes.

But why dwell on the negative, when there were many fine ads in 1996? What about that handsome 3 1/2 star campaign from Martin/Williams, Minneapolis, for Northern States Power, with the lovely pictures and sounds and stories of electricity in everyday life? Why not concentrate on success?

Because re-trashing the others is fun, that's why.

ONE-STAR SHOWCASE

In this year's One-Star Showcase, there was a patently sexist global Pepsi ad ( BBDO Worldwide, New York) in which a teenage boy imagined himself to be "soap-on-a-rope in Claudia Schiffer's shower"; a grotesque and claustrophobic Swissair spot (Advico Y&R, Zurich) featuring closeups of nostril-hair snipping and a transvestite's Adam's apple; a sickeningly self-congratulatory five-minute Saturn "documentary" about playgrounds its dealers built in depressed urban neighborhoods (Hal Riney & Partners, San Francisco); a Bud Light campaign (Sosa, Bromley, Aguilar, Noble & Associates, San Antonio, Texas) that cultivates Latino beer drinkers by ridiculing Anglo ones; and, from no-chance presidential candidate Richard Lugar, a mini-series of primary-campaign ads ominously dramatizing an act of nuclear terrorism.

"Lugar for President," the first three fear-mongering installments ended. "To be continued . . ." But not for long. Lugar soon dropped out of the race.

All right. Enough of that nasty stuff, because there were quite a few very fine ads. . . .

DISHONORABLE MENTION

Wait, just one more thing. It would also be a disservice not to mention the presidential ad campaigns in the general election, wherein both Clinton and Dole repeatedly dishonored themselves with lies about their opponents' records, or the essentially false testimonial by Jane Goodall (BBDO, New York) in the otherwise delightful "Chimps" spot for HBO, or the Post cereal campaign from Grey Advertising, New York, which picked up 1 1/2 stars by announcing everyday low pricing as if it were a selfless gesture akin to donating a kidney.

TRIUMPHS

Okay, now we can get to the year's Ad Reviewed triumphs: 13 spots rated 3 1/2 stars. It all began at the Super Bowl, where a generally lackluster ad roster was brightened with a spot from J. Walter Thompson USA, Chicago, about the auditions for the new "I wish I were an Oscar Mayer Wiener" kid. The big game also had Budweiser's wonderfully beautiful, amazing and funny gridiron Clydesdales ( DDB Needham Worldwide, Chicago) and several typically brilliant BBDO, New York, spots for Pepsi. "Security camera," about a Coke delivery guy caught in the act of sampling a Pepsi, is a modern classic.

If the Super Bowl ad scene was a bit flat, the Summer Olympics were concave. Proud sponsor after proud sponsor contrived some silly analogy between the Games and their brands, the most ludicrous of which saw Home Depot (Richards Group, Dallas) compare their sales clerks with Olympic coaches.

Hey, coach, which aisle for the sheetrock nails?

But then there was McDonald's ( Leo Burnett USA, Chicago) gently poking fun at Olympic euphoria with a counter kid who fills a soft ice-cream cone and brandishes it like the Olympic torch. And there was also the marvelous campaign from Lee riveted jeans ( Fallon McElligott, Minneapolis), which delightfully humanized the idea of superficial sexual attraction.

LIKE REAL LIFE

Maybe political correctness is on the wane, because later in the year, Levi's Wide Leg Jeans would do exactly the same thing. "Elevator" (Foote, Cone & Belding, San Francisco) showed a 70-floor interlude between two impossibly fetching people who saw each other and imagined a whole romance and subsequent life together. But when they arrived at the lobby, they wordlessly walked their separate ways. Lust, hesitation and missed opportunity. Just like real life.

On the international front, Procter & Gamble's Ya detergent (Leo Burnett, Bogota, Colombia) took the premise of P&G's Daz "doorstep challenge" and applied it charmingly to a horse. After two weeks, the horse was indeed whiter and brighter. Orangina (Y&R, Paris) dressed an actor as an Orangina bottle and stuck him in a giant pinball machine. "What are my lines?" he asked. The off-camera response was, "Ahhhhh." Then he was sent shooting through the machine, delivering his line perfectly.

Rolo (Lintas, Amsterdam) won the Grand Prix at Cannes with its spot about the little boy who teases a baby elephant with his last Rolo, and 30 years later gets trunk-whipped by the fully-grown pachyderm with the very long memory. But the better spot may have been in the movie theater, where a young man gives his last Rolo to his pretty date only to have a blonde bombshell take the seat on his other side. He evaluates his choice and puts his arm around the first girl--using it as leverage to grab the last Rolo from her mouth. Hilarious.

Just for the record, we awarded 3 stars to the controversial Arch Deluxe introductory campaign (Fallon), but unfortunately did not review one of the most talked about ads of the year: the Barbie and GI Joe-inspired spot for Nissan. That campaign's introductory spot, "Dream Garage" ( TBWA Chiat/Day, Venice, Calif.), was in many ways promising, but also too creepy for words. An old man with his arm around a little boy, who has fallen through a trap door into his subterranean lair? We're like, "Gross." We are however on the record as approving of the tagline "Enjoy the Ride," which is what we hope to do as the campaign moves forward.

WATCH FOR EV1

Another campaign to watch in 1997 is for EV1. The electric car from General Motors (Riney, San Francisco) got off to a clever start with an animated parade of household appliances converging on the futuristic new car.

But the 1996 campaign with the brightest future is for Snickers. A half-dozen very funny commercials from BBDO, New York, turn on the idea of being stuck someplace you don't want to be--hence "Not going anywhere for a while? Better grab a Snickers." The best features an elderly end-zone painter misspelling "CHIEFS," and forced to start over. "Great googily moogily!" he says, memorably. The phrase, and the campaign, aren't going anywhere for a good long while.

IKEA: 4 STARS

And so, too, we hope, the Ikea campaign ( Deutsch, New York). Ad Review awarded 4 stars but once in 1996--and maybe we were voting with our heart--but once again we were bowled over by the understated daring of a spot cast with an interracial couple.

Like the Ikea spot with the gay couple in 1994, the commercial isn't even incidentally about the thing for which it is most notable. It's not about race; it's about shopping for a chair, and the joyful optimism of prospective parenthood. Sweet, warmly funny and empathetic, it doesn't so much break a barrier as materialize quietly on the other side.

All of which bespeaks unassuming style--which, lo and behold, is what Ikea tries to project. Meanwhile, it's advertising that makes us proud of advertising. May 1997 bring us more of the same.

Copyright December 1996, Crain Communications Inc.

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