BARBARA LIPPERT’S CRITIQUE

Isn’t it ironic? Remember the “bugs” that were going to get us pre-Y2K? One short millennial year later, it’s not the technology, stupid. The computer equipment did just fine. It’s the dot-com businesses and the tech stocks that died. We may yet need the canned food and that turbine generator in the basement—in Montana.

Speaking of impending death, can we please call a moratorium on the ER scenarios in ads involving flatlining patients being paddled back to life? Once is funny, twice can still be darkly funny, but three times gets tasteless and annoying. A few years back, Levi’s did the “Tainted Love” version of near-death under the surgical lights: Shockingly and hilariously, the entire medical crew and blue-jeans-wearing patient bumped and tapped their way to the contagious beat of “I got to (bump bump) run away … I’ve got to (bump bump) get away …” (That by the way, was the one-hit wonder of the ’80s group Soft Cell. I wouldn’t mind listening to it through any emergency procedure.)

And then, early last year, death became E*Trade. In an equally hilarious spot, the male patient is given super service around the hospital. Why? Because as each medical staffer points out and/or whispers, the guy has “money coming out the wazoo.” “Wazoo” is one of the great funny words of all time, but the last nurse’s z-heavy pronunciation really brings it home.

Just two months ago, however, Discover revisited the same grim scenario. In this version, a guy on the table under the big white light gets shocked back to life, chest thump and all. He’s thrilled, it turns out, because his brief flirtation with the Grim Reaper means more cash back for him—he paid the ER bill with Discover plastic.

But enough of making light of hospital death. In advertising, it was also the year we assuaged our collective guilt over not having any real wars to fight or depressions to live through by picking up near-dead wet critters in the road.

This setup was used by both Nationwide Insurance (guy driving SUV in evening clothes picks up big turtle) and Range Rover (guy driving SUV in evening clothes picks up big dog.) I might be driving this big mother of a luxury vehicle and plowing over co-workers and customers by day, it’s saying, but I brake for small animals in the rain— and I better get credit for it! By the way, the wife always stays inside next to the driver’s seat, nice and toasty.

And speaking of electroshock treatments—and these days, who isn’t?—I must go back to that Radio Shack campaign involving the footballer and former Lois Lane. The more I see it, the worse it gets. First of all, who died and made them a couple? Teri Hatcher, particularly, seems to be going insane, a human nerve ending. The first clue is the hair: From one spot to the next, she is the Sybil of bad-hair days. And she never sports the same finger-in-the-socket look twice.

Howie Long seems to serve as the human surge protector; he stands by as though the terrifyingly thin Hatcher, with her flesh-free, birdlike arms and odd, electro-helmeted crown of hair, might just take off and fly right out of there. Yee-ouch.

Speaking of brand mascots who get more attention than the product, who do you think would win in a smackdown: the Pets.com sock puppet or Bad Andy? I say Bad Andy.

Substitute William Shatner for the sock puppet, I say Shatner. And as far as Priceline.com goes, Captain Kirk has left the building. What was that theory about resurrecting one’s career—not to mention stock portfolio—through self-parody?

And speaking of highly tanned endorsement professionals, word had it that Estee Lauder was thinking of canning model-cum-actress Elizabeth Hurley—too many tawdry associations for the image, darling. Then just a few weeks ago, I saw a new campaign for Beautiful, the perfume, involving Liz and her cleavage running on the beach. (This may be the one for which she got fined by SAG for working during the strike.) In it, she wears a strapless wedding gown and is shown with attendants running by her side. Oddly, there is no groom in sight.

At first, the seaside nuptials reminded me of Cindy Crawford, who married her present husband on the beach of a tropical island and was canned by Revlon. (Revlon advertising has many problems, but none of them will be solved by getting rid of Cindy.)

But back to the narcissist’s dream: Hurley marrying herself, with all the trappings. Perhaps this is an all-girly-Hurley affair because any groom might conjure up visions of Liz’s ex, Hugh Grant, and his Divine Brown peccadillo.

Still, that’s such old news that it’s not the problem. The trouble is the total fakeness of the scene. Lauder traditionally uses weddings and bride to symbolize Beautiful. And with that come some throwback ideas about hope and purity and the most important day of your life. It’s not working with Hurley, and as with Cindy, it’s not entirely her fault.

One campaign that does seem to be the perfect marriage of form and content, however, is the latest for Levi’s. It’s the “Make Them Your Own” campaign, part deux. (The first installment, directed by Spike Jonze, brilliantly showed people shimmying into their Levi’s in the dressing room.)

In the latest incarnation, there are 36 different spots involving kids singing karoake (“Karma Chameleon,” “Downtown,” “Kung Fu Fighting.”)

Indeed, the strategy becomes perfectly clear. As conceived by Chuck McBride, there are as many individual vocal styles, dance moves and off-key arias as there are ways to wear sexy, baggy, hip-huggin’ cutoff jeans and short shorts.

Levi’s gives us a level basement lounge. Here, everybody’s a performer, although some have more flair in their pants than in their stage acts. Some employ the spoken-lyrics tradition of Shatner, some bring rap stylings to Boy George and others just get up there and seriously emote, never getting close to hitting a note but spreading their tone deafness with great cheer.

It’s so natural, poignant, human and visually ’70s that each one is enjoyable—even hypnotic. And with the really bad singers, it’s amazing how much you notice the clothing. (When audio fails, there’s always great denim.) The most successful spots are the slyly edited montages—this is a gift of riffs. Take that, Benetton Nation!

I also find the ongoing poetry of the entire Volkswagen campaign incredible. It brings art to commerce. And the wonderful Intel spots featuring the Blue Man Group brings performance art to commerce. This is a great marriage of brand and troupe: the futuristically skullcapped, blankfaced but bluefaced group always reminded me of machines with silicon chips under their caps. Intel could be inside.

The Intel spots have a stripped- down visual look that’s memorable, but also a neural sophistication that goes with the complicated work of the Pentium 3 processor. The colors are blazing, and the group’s wordless work is charming.

To create the three blue stripes of the Pentium 3 logo, the theatrical trio catapults paint against a blank white wall. In another, a blue man shimmies down the wall, making body art.

My fave involves a huge three- keyed blue xylophone. The combination of the graphic simplicity and almost primal action is smart—as if they are giving birth to this great new thing. By the way, this exposure should also do for Blue Man Group what Cast Away does for Fed Ex.

It’s a good thing the movie puts the overnight delivery company in such a heroic light. I hated the Survivor-related Fed Ex spot showing the Austrialian guy waiting for the delivery of his snakebite antidote—more death, fewer laughs.

And finally, the year in review would not be complete without a brickbat to the rebranded phone company with those ubiquitous ads. As a result of the subliterate new corporate name, three-quarters of the kids in my son’s fifth-grade class spelled the thing you see in the distance “herizon.”