High-tech spots prove nerds can chuckle, too

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Glad tidings of the season from the entire staff to you.

Yes, you, gentle subscribers, and you, routing slip also-rans and you, World Wide Web freeloaders! In the spirit of selfless giving for which we are treasured worldwide, herewith, once again, the Ad Review "Year in Review" review, our way of saying either a) we really care, or b) let's recycle some old material and blow town before the holiday traffic gets impossible.

Let's begin, as always, with the annual accounting. The mean rating of all ads evaluated in 1997 was 2.49 stars, down from 2.58 in 1996 and among the lowest in the 12-year history of this statistically insignificant bellwether of nothing.


The low value could bespeak a slippage in the industry's creative, strategic and ethical performance. It might reflect the staff's general irritability at having to share a planet with Latrell Sprewell, Al "No Controlling Legal Authority" Gore and Miller Brewing Co.'s "Dick."

But in all probability it just means that the sample of 79 rated ads and campaigns is too small and subjectively managed to validate averaging.

The number could easily have been a bit higher had we ever assigned a rating to the best ad of the year--the best ad we've seen in many years--which we wrote about in June but never actually awarded the four stars it deserved.

The spot, from Delvico Bates, Barcelona, was for Esencial hand cream. It showed a woman dismounting her bicycle to lubricate its squeaking chain with a generous glob of Esencial. But the chain continues to squeak, because Esencial always moisturizes but is "never greasy."

This brilliant demonstration of brand non-attributes is as esencial as advertising can get.


Another potential 4-star spot was "Da da da" from Arnold Communications, Boston, which we praised in our review of the new, somewhat disappointing Volkswagen Passat campaign, but never rated itself.

In a year of generally excellent automotive advertising, "Da da da"--the story of two underoccupied Gen Xers tooling around in a Golf--was the best single car commercial. The best campaigns were from Mercedes-Benz of North America ( Lowe & Partners/SMS, New York) and Toyota Motor Sales USA's Lexus GS series ( Team One, El Segundo, Calif.)

The most impressive category in 1997 was technology, accounting for three of the year's nine 3 1/2-star reviews. AMD (Hill, Holliday, Connors, Cosmopulos, Boston) did a hilarious spoof of James Bond movies, equating the interminably complicated execution method devised by the Dr. No-like evil mastermind with the interminable processing time of competing central processors.

Time Warner's Road Runner Group (Mad Dogs & Englishmen, New York) had an equally funny campaign dramatizing the unendurable frustration of downloading Web files with a modem.

Best of all is the IBM campaign (Ogilvy & Mather, New York), which cleverly dramatizes the difference between having a presence on the Internet and making money off of it. Very amusing, very pointed, very brand-indelible advertising.


[NOTE OF APOLOGY: Anheuser-Busch's Bud Light "Lizards" campaign ( Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, San Francisco) and E. McIlhenny Sons Corp.'s Tabasco exploding-mosquito Super Bowl spot ( DDB Needham, Dallas) both deserved at least 3 1/2 stars, but--due to momentary lapses by a member of the staff who was severely dealt with afterwards--were awarded only 3.]

The other 3 1/2-star winners were a low-budget campaign for Musica record shops (Jupiter Drawing Room, Cape Town, South Africa); the Visa debit card Super Bowl ad ( BBDO Worldwide) featuring Bob Dole, the vanquished pol who since has starred in more spots than Speedy Alka-Seltzer; The Weather Channel ( TBWA Chiat/Day) and R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.'s Camel cigarettes (Mezzina/Brown, New York).

What made Camel's campaign so remarkable is that it is the successor to Joe Camel, the smartass cartoon character who nearly singlehumpedly exposed the tobacco industry to unprecedented regulation and billions of dollars in tort liability. Unnecessarily, as it turns out, because the new work is at least as compelling, brand-building and iconographically powerful--with no damning, and unconscionable, particular appeal to minor children.


But if Joe's demise ends one chapter of breathtaking advertising stupidity, it did not close the book. A Wendy's International courtroom spot (Bates USA, New York) featuring a drawn and lethargic Dave Thomas and a Dollar rental car campaign (Earle Palmer Brown, Philadelphia) with Chevy Chase were both gigantically and embarrassingly insipid. A commercial for General Motors Certified Used Vehicles ( Mullen, Wenham, Mass.), fancying itself a brand-image spot, introduced the new brand while never mentioning what it is, where it can be found, what it promises or why it even exists.


In a public-service cinema ad about the revolting problem of dog feces on the street (Saatchi & Saatchi Worldwide, London), viewers were treated to the far more revolting spectacle of a man moving his bowels on the sidewalk.

Holiday Inn ( Fallon McElligott, Minneapolis) spent about $1.5 million of the quintessentially middle-American client's money for a Super Bowl ad featuring a leggy transsexual. The spot was neither very good nor very bad, but the franchisees, as predicted here, went ballistic.

Then came Braun, trying to get mothers and wives and girl friends to buy shavers for their favorite young men, with a series of chesty babes in come-hither poses.

Nothing like a nice set of hooters to impress mom at Christmas.


Nabisco Foods' Planter's Mixed Nuts (Foote, Cone & Belding, New York) sleazily confused consumers with an irrelevant "no cholesterol" claim and the advice to "Go nuts!" eating nuts, despite high saturated-fat content--a spot subsequently pulled and revised following an investigation by the National Advertising Division of the Council of Better Business Bureaus.

Finally, despite apparently purer motives, Denny's restaurants tried to heal racial wounds and re-cultivate its black clientele, but did so with a campaign (Chisholm-Mingo Group, New York) that brazenly perpetuated class divisions within the black community.

One of the largest and most fascinating categories of the year was "new campaigns from clients recently giving the heave-ho to Leo Burnett Co., Chicago." Among those reaching for the door were United Airlines, Miller Lite (both to Fallon McElligott) and McDonald's Corp. (DDB Needham Worldwide, Chicago.)


The new McDonald's work was quite good--but, then, so was Burnett's work for this client, whose many operational problems can scarcely be blamed on advertising. United's "Rising" campaign was handsome, but unpersuasive. As for Miller Lite, this was the agency change that gave us "Dick," the aptly named fictitious auteur of supposedly subversive--but really just juvenile--commercials in the Diesel jeans mold.

By the year's end, the campaign was finally finding its way but, in the fractional-second end of every spot, Dick was still rearing his ugly head. We would never suggest another agency change, but Fallon would do well to bring in some outside talent for this account.

We're thinking: Lorena Bobbitt.

Copyright December 1997, Crain Communications Inc.

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