Maybe our collective media malaise is starting to make heretofore brazen clients skittish. Brands that seemed to be committed to doing interesting, provocative, entertaining advertising now seem to be backing away -- and many have solid, sales-slumpin' reasons to do so.
Consider how plenty of us couldn't get enough of Nissan's Mr. K last year; this year he's out of work. And just when Fallon's Miller Lite campaign reached a level of inspired absurdity -- and copped some major awards -- the brewer admitted that the ads haven't stemmed the brand's decline and said the campaign (and maybe the agency) will be changed. Ditto for the scattershot Wieden & Kennedy work on Miller Genuine Draft.
Sadly, there was the slow fade to black of Cliff Freeman's relationship with those cheese-mad Little Caesars franchisees to contend with as well. More Polly-O, less brio, I guess. So much for abbondanza.
There are other casualties of the return of sensible thinking in advertising. Nike's "I Can" campaign clearly couldn't. And BBDO's Pepsi work is starting to feel like hockey great Wayne Gretzky -- it's still out there on the ice, but you know its best days are behind it.
For those who predict dark clouds on the horizon, economy-wise, these might be seen as omens. Recession lurks a few time zones away, and like those killer bees, it's bound for our shores. Best circle the wagons now, some clients might be thinking. The trickledown of paranoia has thus begun.
But it's not all hand-wringing as Y2K bears down. The year was full of interesting campaigns in the soon-to-be-obsolete world of print and broadcast media. Take Levi's "Hard Jeans" work from the still-rolling TBWA/Chiat/Day, Creativity's two-time Agency of the Year. Like its tech category counterpart, Apple's "Think Different," it was inescapable this year. While the latter seems finally to be kicking into gear (the introduction of the exceedingly cool i-Mac has helped), the jury's out on the strategic seaworthiness of the former. Will the kids really dig stiff jeans, or are Levi's doomed to be the Dockers of denim? Hard to say, but it's worth noting that Lee Clow wears 'em. And he's over 50.
More likely he grew up in dungarees, maybe hiding a Buddy Lee doll under his junior surfboard. Fallon's Lee jeans work stands out, for sure, but why do I have the nagging feeling that the client won't find the will to stick with this ambitious and clearly costly campaign for the long run unless the sales needle ticks, and ticks quick?
On another fashion front, those Jell-O-bellied, YANKS-inscribed Adidas boys came into their own as genuine bridge-and-tunnel crowd heroes this year -- thanks, of course, to a record-breaking Bomber performance and an inspired campaign from Leagas Delaney, San Francisco. Their Spuds MacKenzie counterpart, however, and the biggest crossover ad star since Bud's "I love you, man" whiner, has to be the Taco Bell Chihuahua. It's weird to think that somehow this quivering inbred has helped turn around a major brand's sales. If that's all it took, what does this say about the food?
Sports played a big role in the ad landscape this year, from Goodby's surprising Grand Prix-winning Nike skateboarder stuff to Miller Lite's "Wrestlers" spot. And let's not forget to go to the videotape! Cliff Freeman's hilarious Fox Sports hockey promos and WongDoody's Seattle SuperSonics real-people campaign swept the shows in '98 and taught every bloated-budget creative director that sometimes, indeed, less is more.
Finally, of course, there's McCann-Erickson's precious "Priceless" campaign for MasterCard. Smart money, indeed -- that's what this client seems to have spent hiring this megashop. Yet another crossover hit, MasterCard has achieved that rare honor: it's become the reference point to a handful of Internet chain-mail jokes. Congrats, folks. You've been bookmarked.
On the executional front, 1998 can be remembered as the TCBY year: frozen moments everywhere! The jarringly annoying time-slice visual effects technique turned up in spots for Clairol, Discover Card, Chevy Silverado and Honda, all within a few months of each other. It's morphing all over again, mitigated only by the cost and complexity of the technique, which will prevent it from showing up in spots for Mrs. Butterworth's. God help us when they perfect a software program that mimics it.
It's been a hell of a year, indeed, although I've yet to touch on the biggest story of all: frankly, the business was about the business in '98, as Y&R's Ted Bell said last summer. Riney got bought, Carmichael Lynch got bought, Arnold got bought, everybody got bought. Yes, I know, Donny Deutsch stopped wearing those three-piece suits, but that didn't diminish the fact that M&A activity, and a handful of earth-shattering account moves like McDonald's, Levi's and Compaq, tended to overshadow the work.
And that's not even factoring in the overlapping confusion over new media and digital television, both of which are constantly being covered in the press and continue to confound most mainstream agencies.
What to do? My advice is slap on that Nicorette patch, down a few St. John's Wort time-release capsules, and party like it's 1999. A year from now we'll all