Garfield Says Adieu, AdReview

After 25 Years, Ad Age's Iconic Critic Is Hanging up His Stars, but Not Before Recalling His Hits and Misses -- and Yes, Having the Last Word

By Published on .

Bob Garfield
EVOLUTION: Bob Garfield circa 1995 on the left vs. Garfield today.

Twenty-five years, baby. Twenty-five. That's 50 Spanish-American Wars, 25 MBA programs, 10 stints in the Syrian army, two cycles of cicada pestilence and Alexander Ovechkin's entire life. That's also a long time to ply your trade in the fault-finding industry, or any other, and it's time for a change.

I'm retiring from AdReview for a lot of reasons, converging more or less by coincidence on my silver jubilee. The whys and wherefores follow, about 2,500 words below. For the moment, however, permit me to do a little reminiscing, some ruminating and some recapitulating. Let's travel to 1985, when Mikhail Gorbachev took over the U.S.S.R., when Rock Hudson died and when the New Coke, the Tommy Hilfiger brand and AdReview were born. Mike Tyson had his first pro fight. Arab terrorists and the Unabomber committed murder and mayhem. The big movie was "Back to the Future." Ad agencies commanded a 15% commission. The New Orleans Saints sucked.

And Ad Age editor Fred Danzig asked me to do an ad review.

This gets a bit confusing, but I'd been recently hired from USA Today, where I was the advertising columnist, to do an Ad Age feature that had nothing whatsoever to do with advertising. It was a human-interest column syndicated to daily papers around the country, about American eccentricities -- a beat that led to a parallel career on public radio and eventually a collection titled "Waking Up Screaming From the American Deam." But over at our archrival, Barbara Lippert's Adweek Critique was generating a big following and I was seen as a potential answer. So, at Fred's request, I wrote a review about a Budget Rent-a-Car commercial starring the late midget celebrity Herve Villechaize. The sensitive headline (written by someone else, as all have been): "Budget's Villechaize Spot Comes Up Short."

Management liked the piece. So I did about 1,200 more.

Art of selling
From the beginning, AdReview was quite different from Lippert's approach, which tended to look at ads more as artifacts of the culture than as selling tools. I figured my job was first and foremost to divine whether the TV commercial in question was going to build the brand. Yes, over the years I've considered almost every criterion of business strategy, production, ethics and culture, but my singular focus has always been whether the ads in question will sell anything -- an approach that has for 25 years put me at odds with a broad swath of the agency universe.

This, I believe, reveals a lot more about the agency universe than about me.

Anyway, it wasn't long before AdReview got noticed. It's one thing for the brash and cheeky insurgent to criticize an ad campaign, and another thing altogether when the source is the industry bible. Verily, the Israelites quaked. Take, for instance, "Burger Bungle." That was the copydesk's headline above my 1988 front-page review of a new Burger King campaign from NW Ayer, which was making its debut having been the winner of, to that time, the biggest account change in history. The too-clever-by-95% slogan was "We do it the way you'd do it, when we do it like we do it at Burger King" and the ads were all over the place, bereft of thematic consistency or any sign of strategic thinking. They were also painfully unfunny.

Very soon thereafter, Ayer lost the business, an event then Ayer CEO Jerry Siano publicly blamed on me. The New York Times seemed to agree, but I still doubt it; I was merely articulating the obvious. But if you wish to blame the messenger, over the years there were many such episodes of lost business or abruptly vanishing campaigns or simply editing fixes on the heels of a review. Perpetual bank (1986), Rally's hamburgers (1996), First Union Bank (1998), Hasbro's "Nemesis Factor" (2001), KFC (2003), Orville Redenbacher's spokeszombie (2007) and Chili's (2009) leap to mind.

But the most memorable were For Eyes optical (1994) and the Just for Feet chain of athletic shoes. In both those cases (and no other), I called the agencies before my column ran to advise them to pull the ads before they saw the light of day. A humanitarian gesture, you might say.

Both campaigns were mind-bogglingly offensive. For Eyes tried -- well-meaningly and tone-deafly -- to combine social messaging about homelessness with a two-pairs-for-the-price-of-one pitch. Just for Feet depicted a Kenyan runner being tracked by white mercenaries in a Humvee, then caught, drugged and shod in sneakers against his will. It was a Super Bowl spot -- the worst one ever.

BUDWEISER: 'Whassup!' Garfield gave it the thumbs up. The phrase became a cultural phenomenon in 2000.
BUDWEISER: 'Whassup!' Garfield gave it the thumbs up. The phrase became a cultural phenomenon in 2000.
For Eyes was forced to immediately pull its ads, and soon fired its agency. Just for Feet was crucified in the press, whereupon it sued its agency for malpractice and spiraled into insolvency. I didn't cause these reactions, but I sure as hell saw them coming. Now see, this is kind of a difficult point to make without coming of as an imperious, self-congratulatory windbag -- but in defense of my life's work, I'm obliged to remind my own critics that campaigns praised in the column overwhelmingly had longevity. Campaigns raked over the coals overwhelmingly were short-lived. Just sayin' is all.

The most short-lived of all was a massive global effort from Coca-Cola Co. to switch its theme from the majestic "Always" to the putatively more competitive-minded "Always and Only." I went ape, excoriating Coke for gilding the lily -- and diluting the purity -- of perhaps its most powerful slogan ever. I made my case persuasively enough that when Sergio Zyman, Coca-Cola's global marketing czar, read my column Monday morning he immediately cancelled the change.

Chalk one up for the AdReview staff.

Royal we
Oh, yeah. Perhaps you've noticed that I always referred to myself as "AdReview" or "the AdReview staff" and employed the "editorial we" -- also known as the "royal we" -- to lend an air of pomposity, arrogance and self-regard. "AdReview" was a windbag. My inspiration was the great alt-weekly columnist Cecil Adams (née Ed Zotti), who understood the best way not to be dismissed as an obnoxious know-it-all is to be a caricature of the obnoxious know-it-all. My AdReview persona was seldom me; it was usually 120% of me -- a fact apparently lost on many, many readers. Still, I maintained the artifice for 25 years, owing in part to habit, stubbornness and the personal satisfaction of an extended conceptual joke. AdReview is a bit of a dick, but he's 20% dickier than I am.

My other journalistic inspiration was Walter Kerr, the late, great lead drama critic of The New York Times. Kerr understood that caustic wit was crucial in maintaining his own audience, but not paramount. What is paramount is being an honest broker of your own judgments, and never succumbing to the temptation of skewing negative for the sake of a cheap punchline. If you wish to see what happens when this principle is ignored, spend five minutes reading the ad blogs or Gawker. They are intermittently amusing, deliberately mean and ethically bankrupt.

Intellectual honesty also means never pandering to the tastes or expectations of the audience. At Cannes, especially, where there is so much appreciation for gratuitous novelty, shattered taboos and post-modern irony (i.e., the standards that so often put agencies so structurally at odds with the interests of their clients), it's easy amid the chummy and boozy atmosphere for an on-location critic to go native. But if a Gold Lion winner is really a golden calf, someone has to speak up. This can make for quite the buzz-kill on the Carlton terrace.

DOVE: The 'Evolution' campaign got high marks.
DOVE: The 'Evolution' campaign got high marks.
On the other hand, one of the myths surrounding AdReview over the years is that I don't like anything, I dump on everything, I have not a kind word to say about anything. Recently, for instance, some online commenter named Pete wrote, "Bob Garfield is an idiot. He's a glass-half-empty douche-bag." Not true. If anything, I am a glass-half-full douche-bag. Over the years, the average AdReview star rating has been approximately 2.6 stars on a scale of zero to four -- which falls somewhere between "mediocre" and "good." Surely a random sample of 1,200 ads from this time period would not generate anywhere near that high an average. This reflects my endless quest to honor great work with the praise and recognition it deserves. Not easy. In fact, far from stacking the deck in an un-Walter Kerr way to be meanly funny, I've stacked the deck so as not to inflict, week after week, a merciless drubbing.

Not that I claim to be especially sensitive to the feelings of the creative community (although, by policy, in a negative review I don't name individual names). It's just that a weekly pan parade would quickly have been dismissed as juvenile and irrelevant -- just as a hit parade would have been dismissed as Pollyanna and irrelevant.

The winners
Ah, but the hits. So many wonderful, ingenious, breathtaking hits. Contrary to Jeff Goodby's silly assertion that I hate advertising, the fact is that I cherish the advertising age and am devastated to be seeing its dying days. I am also admiring verging on ecstatic whenever episodes of unalloyed genius punctuate the depressing preponderance of mediocrity and client-underwritten masturbation. And I've been thrilled to document them.

Among those masterpieces are the obvious: Nike in just about everything it does; the original Energizer Bunny campaign (1989); Levis; Absolut; ESPN SportsCenter (1995-); "Always Coca-Cola" (1993-2000); "Got Milk?" (1993-); Budweiser "Whassup!" (2000); iPod silhouettes (2003); Honda "Cog" (2003) and "Grrr" (2005); Dove "Evolution" (2006); Apple's PC and Mac (2008); the eTrade baby (2008); VW in four countries, including "Da da da" (1997) here here here.

But I've also been blown away by work that elsewhere isn't necessarily regarded as immortal: Cotton Inc. "The Fabric of Our Lives" (1989); Ross Perot's infomercial (1992); Dockers' "Colors" (1992) (a Joe Pytka TV campaign even Pytka believes un-extraordinary); Ikea, featuring a gay couple, just being a couple (1994); a hilarious French Orangina commercial that showed an actor in an Orangina-bottle suit being shaken vigorously (1996); Heinz using its labels as media to announce, among other things, "the rude ketchup" (1999); Dyson vacuums (2003); Burger King's "de-Friend" promotion (2008);'s Barack Obama tribute (2008); and Maloney & Porcelli's restaurant's "Expense-a-Steak" online fake-receipt generator (2009).

One of my favorites in 25 years was a 1993 print ad for American Standard bath hardware, which subtly anthropomorphized things such as faucet handles by announcing, "They've seen you naked. They've heard you sing."

Another, unfortunately, was a 1997 TV spot for a Spanish skin moisturizer called Esencial. It depicted a pretty woman bicycling down a country lane when her chain began to squeak. So she took some of her Esencial, daubed it on the chain and resumed riding. But the chain still squeaked, because Esencial is "Never greasy." Amazing: a demonstration of product non-attributes. I gave the spot four stars and lobbied heavily for it to win the Cannes Grand Prix.

HONDA: Garfield calls the 'Grr' spot 'a masterpiece.'
HONDA: Garfield calls the 'Grr' spot 'a masterpiece.'
And it might have, had it been a real ad for a real product. But it was a ghost. A fake. A fraud.

Oy vey.

Bum calls
Of course, at least I was correct about the fake ad's real genius. About a dozen times over the years I have been simply, horribly wrong: 1) dumping on the original "What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas" campaign (2003) and the McDonald's "I'm Lovin' It" campaign (2003); 2) Lavishing praise on an obnoxious Australian-rules Energizer pitchman named Jacko (1987), when we should have called for his deportation, and awarding 3 ½ stars to a quirky Reebok campaign titled UBU (1989), which focused on eccentricity instead of sneakers, infuriated the trade and lasted about five minutes; 3) damning with faint, 2½-star praise the original Saturn "A different kind of company" campaign (1990) and Nike's "Just Do It," -- 3 stars -- which we found a trifle harsh (1988).

Yeah, since then it has harshly become one of the three greatest campaigns in advertising history.

I also kind of regret being the only person in America who kind of liked McDonald's roll-out of the Arch Deluxe (1996). And I'll never live down the most quoted line in AdReview history, my description of the late Dave Thomas, in his debut as Wendy's spokes-founder, as "a steer in a half-sleeve shirt" (1989). The part about him being a theoretically perfect frontman for the square, old-fashioned burgers, that I had right. The part about the clunky writing and halting delivery in the first spots I also can defend. What I cannot defend is the meanness, the snideness, the cheapness of the ad hominem. I broke the Walter Kerr rule, and the shame still burns.

On the other hand, I harbor no regrets whatsoever for eviscerating the most repugnant advertisers of my tenure: Benetton, for ostentatiously exploiting disease, war, religion and the victims of social injustice to push pricey mix 'n' match separates; Calvin Klein, arsonist, for using increasingly aggressive sexual images to ignite outrage, knowing that the media engines and ladders would inevitably race to the scene; GoDaddy, for trafficking in the most puerile and degrading T&A; Swiftboat Veterans for Truth, for smears of the ugliest kind (2004); Camel and Kool (1991), the lowest of the tobacco-marketing low, for using cartoon characters to cultivate children; Nintendo (1994), for telling adolescents to "hock a loogie at life"; and General Motors, for 1) jumping on the gruesome tragedy of 9/11 to sell Chevys and Pontiacs with its perverse "Keep America Rolling" 3,000-dead sale-a-bration (2001), and 2) having the gall on Earth Day, after decades of lobbying against emissions and mileage standards, to celebrate "environmental progress" (1990).

This, I said, was akin to "John Wayne Gacy celebrating the International Year of the Child."

The AdReview staff was proud of that one.

Not a bad run
As a senior American, I can't actually summon many turns of phrase, although I still like the coinage -- about a family of people dressed up like fish in a Renuzit spot from the late '80s -- of the term "ichthyovestites." And I vaguely recall, in reviewing a Burger King spot about some fake boy band, about fast-feeders having till then tried nearly every gimmick to reach teens and tweens, "everything but the kitsch n'Sync." Not bad, eh?

Which gets to one other thing I'd like to say about 25 years of waxing critical: It was frequently a hoot. Sure, there was no joy attached to seeing feelings and business and careers hurt when my thumb was down. And I never quite knew how many readers followed AdReview because they respected my judgment, vs. how many wanted to see the latest ravings of a buffoon. But there are worse ways to make a living than to deconstruct an ad, evaluate it according to a dozen or so criteria, synthesize a star rating and spin the results out in an essay of 600 words with a beginning, middle and an end. It's a pursuit that touches business, economics, semiotics, art, popular culture, anthropology, technology, politics, philosophy, ethics, law ... pretty much the whole scope of human enterprise. In short, a fabulous gig.

So then why, perhaps you wonder, would I ever want to quit? Oh, we have our reasons:

  • Putting my money where my mouth is. If my grand apocalyptic theories about advertising and media are correct, that's a lot of my eggs in a couple of quickly disintegrating baskets.
  • Frustration ... and gathering disgust that, despite the best of all forums for evaluating ad strategy and execution, my core principles espoused over a quarter century (and codified in my book "And Now a Few Words from Me") seem to have had little or no effect on the practice of the craft. I continue to be awed and humbled by the best of what the industry produces. But I also think billions of client dollars every year are being squandered by narcissists, conmen, naifs and a number of blithering morons.
  • Perception. For more than 10 years, I've wondered aloud -- mainly with Ad Age management -- whether the world will accept a 55-year-old ad critic. I am 54. Not that I think that my judgment is any less acute these days, but there is a generation of practitioners who may believe the industry has passed me by.
  • Opportunity. I will continue to report and comment on the business, but will expand my scope to include all aspects of media and marketing, especially along "Chaos Scenario" and "Listenomics" lines.
  • Naked greed. From this point forward, my brain is for rent. I will be forming partnerships with three or four organizations for the purpose of selling to marketers what I've been dispensing gratis for decades. This possibly will bring me money, which is good for buying things.
  • Meantime, I want to thank Advertising Age for underwriting one of the great journalistic platforms imaginable, with zero editorial interference and unflinching support. I want to thank the great practitioners of the advertising industry for amazing me and inspiring me. I want to thank the not-so-great practitioners, without whom none of this would have been possible. And I want to thank countless readers for their attention -- your attention. It has been a weekly gift, column after column for 25 years, and I shall never cease being grateful.

    Most Popular