Barbara Lippert’s Critique: Sizzle and Fizzle

The year ended with Saddam out of his hole, having fled his part-time bachelor shack, where he had stored a mirror, two Mars bars and a can of 7-Up. (What, no Lady Clairol?) Do these products humanize him? Does he fit the demo? Osama keeps announcing “Death to America,” but he probably has a secret stash of Mint Milanos to keep him going, squirreled behind the TiVo. The point is, our ubiquitous American brands and cultural exports surface even in the tiny underground bunkers of our sworn enemies. They can’t bury our culture while eating our junk food for comfort.

Closer to home, there were also unexpected happenings. 2003 seemed to be the year in which sex didn’t sell. In response to pressure from conservative political and religious groups, Abercrombie & Fitch, the marketers of preppie-wear and naked three-ways, shut down its A&F Quarterly. One issue had featured an interview with Jenna Jameson, the porn star who adorned an outdoor and print campaign (created in-house) for shoe maker Pony last winter. The ads were soon dropped, but not before Ms. Jameson dueled with Bill O’Reilly, whom she accused of not knowing “the difference between a porn star and a hooker.” Even those less sanctimonious than Bill, however, seemed to find the porn-again issue tiresome: By the time Miller Lite, via Ogilvy & Mather, came out with an execution of “Catfight” as a pillow fight, starring the mother of all hubba-hubba, Pam Anderson, the idea was so tattered that the spot hardly ran (see worst of beer ads). Family-friendly performers didn’t do much better: Céline Dion drove Chrysler dealers round the bend until only her voice remained in the ads (see worst of automotive).

A far more serious offense than Céline’s treacly music, KFC’s attempt at health positioning proved to be a short-term PR disaster. We understand that with the nation’s obesity numbers growing, fast food is considered the new tobacco. But selling fried chicken as “part of a healthy diet” was such a preposterously wrongheaded strategy (out of Foote Cone & Belding in Chicago) that it brought to mind the naked manipulation of cigarette commercials from the 1950s.

McDonald’s responded to health concerns with “Go Active” meals, now being tested, and a Chicken McNuggets recipe that uses lower-fat white meat. If only the new ads were equally on-target. For some reason (think Mentos commercials), German shops find the idea of large men pushing a small car because it’s out of gas just hilarious. (In a recent spot, guys push just such a car toward the Golden Arches. It makes me long for shots of life here on earth.) Another disappointment this year: Capital One may be at a new agency (McCann-Erickson, home of the always charming MasterCard work), yet the ads are as crass, loud and dumb as ever. Watching the latest, with a family joining Santa on his sleigh, is like visiting the house of a rich person with really bad taste and being forced to admire the $6,000 umbrella stand.

Here, more on the year’s best and worst in five categories.

Automotive

BEST: “Cog”
CLIENT: Honda
AGENCY: Weiden + Kennedy, London

WORST: Celine Dion campaign
CLIENT: Chrysler
AGENCIES: Arnell Group, New York; BBDO, Troy, Mich.

Nissan and Volkswagen each produced great work this year. But for a delightful two-minute blockbuster that viewers want to see (and e-mail) repeatedly, the vote goes to Honda’s “Cog” from Wieden + Kennedy in London. An engineering marvel in a museum setting, it all starts with a single cog. That cog hits another cog, which hits ball bearing, springs, tailpipe, etc. Without a single computer enhancement, the wagon assembles itself and rolls down a ramp. It’s the poetry of the crank case. Here, the Accord is truly the sum of its parts—we know everything that’s in it, and it’s all dependable and beautiful. In the only line of copy, soft-voiced announcer Garrison Keillor asks, “Isn’t it nice when things just … work?” The answer this year was a resounding yes.

Great car, wrong star: Céline Dion’s name and the idea of automotive innovation are not automatically one and the same. There was a precedent, however, for showing a pop star sitting in the back of a car, singing. But Sting had already made the music video with the Jaguar when the deal for the commercial came about—plus, they’re both English, and he loves Jaguars, so it came off as an organic match.

Céline is known mostly for flying on wires, descending into her Vegas act, although she did have a car link: a single coming out called “I Drove All Night.” But not necessarily in a big American SUV/minivan. The campaign was quite fashiony and did make her into a true beauty. I didn’t learn much about the angles or the options on the Pacifica, but Céline’s cheekbones were a standout. In one spot, my takeaway was that I really liked her watch. In the end, Céline makes it all about Céline—a lesson Chrysler no doubt has learned. She is now heard, not seen, allowing the cars a better viewing.


Banking

BEST: Citi Identity Theft Solutions campaign
AGENCY: Fallon, Minneapolis

WORST: Commerce Bank campaign
AGENCY: Tierney Communications, Philadelphia

This was the year of appealing to retail customers, showing warmth and humanity. Debanking the bank. Citibank got there first, introducing its “Live richly” campaign three and a half years ago, but did it best this year with Fallon’s brilliant identity-theft series. The ads are great in print and on TV. In print, the guy with the carefully tended pompadour and three chins is quoted as saying, “I had $23,000 worth of liposuction.” That silent juxtaposition is startling and amusing, but on TV the disconnect between the faces and the voices is just dazzling. It palpably translates the violation of having your identity stolen.

In “Geek,” we see a young woman getting a pedicure when out of her mouth comes a voice as horrifying as the head-spinning moment in The Exorcist. It’s a deep male voice, laughing. “Firewall?” she says. “Like that could stop me! Once I got her account number, I couldn’t spend it fast enough … to complete my robot. My girl robot. This is gonna be the best prom ever!” While introducing us to a new brand of pervy techno-creep, the spot also reaches fresh heights of lip-syncing mastery. The nightmare of ID theft is conveyed in a way that’s actually entertaining. It’s a puzzle you have to solve, one that pays you back for trying. A breakthrough for the category, it’s easily the best spot of the year.

While Commerce Bank gets points for putting itself on the map with loud, raucous commercials using Julia Louis-Dreyfus channeling Elaine Benes, I’d say the Seinfeld curse—the actors’ TV shows never work—holds for endorsement deals as well. Seinfeld unveiled sharp insights into a group of arrested-development cases who were big-time-narcissist, selfish-to-the-core New Yorkers. The characters don’t travel well as endorsers, because why would you want to be like them?

In one spot, Julia/Elaine is reduced to going around collecting pennies—even stealing them off a little girl’s pillow—to promote Commerce’s coin-counting machines; the situation seems better suited to Kramer. In the other commercial, she hoists an enormous glass pot of change on the counter of a competing bank and gets sneered at. The Elaine character did epitomize a certain kind of living-by-her-wits career gal—a huge market in New York. But for the bank, is an opportunity for abrasive, crazy women to cash in their life’s coinage really a selling point?



Beer

BEST: “Dominoes”
CLIENT: Miller Lite
AGENCY: Young & Rubicam, New York

WORST: “Catfight”
CLIENT: MIller Lite
AGENCY: Ogilvy & Mather, New York

A lot of good beer advertising has surfaced just in the last few months, and Bud Light’s recent translation of its “Real Men of Genius” radio series into TV has struck comedy gold. But for Miller Lite, the best of times follows the worst of times (“Catfight”), with Y&R’s “Dominoes” the best beer TV spot of the year. In a big, crowd-pleasing, awe-inspiring “How did they do that?” production number, hundreds of extras snake in lines around a city as if waiting to see a Lord of the Rings movie or maybe get their driver’s licenses renewed. Up and down streets, in and out of buildings they go, around hallways, through elevators, down and around again, falling into each other like dominoes with souls until the all-too-human group lurches into a bar. One guy has the courage to step away from the group and order a Miller Lite. Like “Cog,” it’s the kind of commercial that makes people like advertising. And it puts Miller back in the supply chain as a provider of fresh and surprising ideas rather than as a purveyor of recycled cleavage.

“Catfight” was supposed to be a parody of a sexist ad. Miller Lite’s first “Catfight” commercial, from Ogilvy & Mather in New York, even had some super-PC/feminist insurance tacked onto the end, in the form of a woman in a bar giving her boyfriend a disgusted, incredulous look. Somehow, nobody bought that part: Viewers tended to take away the bit with the women fighting and stripping and lying on top of each other in a pool of wet cement. (On cable, that scene ended with one catfighter saying to the other, “Wanna make out?”)

My biggest problem is that it really wasn’t about men loving sex—or women. It was more about hostility, about tuning out women for soft-porn caricatures. No marketer can afford to alienate so many female viewers, though some argued that “Catfight” wasn’t offensive to women since it mainly made men look like morons. Oh, that’s progress. When it first broke, I wrote, “Let’s face it: No one ever went broke overestimating the visual stimulation of pneumatic boobs and lesbian scenarios.” But it looks like Miller almost did: The spots did little except create a major backlash. Retail


Retail

BEST: Target campaign
AGENCIES: Peterson Milla Hooks, Minneapolis; Kirshenbaum Bond & Partners, New York

WORST: Radio Shack campaign
AGENCY: In-house Circle R Group, Fort Worth, Texas

For yet another year, Target agencies Peterson Milla Hooks and Kirshenbaum Bond & Partners hit the retail bull’s eye in matching a brand experience to a brand identity that still feels fresh. Target gets the Best Retail Advertising award not for one execution but for the range of its always coherent, consistent, upbeat and graphically elevated offerings. Typically, a Target ad takes the lowliest, most mundane product, like detergent, and makes it graphically interesting and fun, which brings excitement to the prospect of everyday life on a budget. The store stands for the democratization of good taste—just because you’re not wealthy doesn’t mean you can’t have style.

In one of the inspired spots this year, a woman buys boxes of Oreos. She goes home to reveal she lives in an entirely black-and-white polka-dot world. It’s whimsical and funny, with the usual meticulous attention to casting, music, film quality and even color correction (for Target’s signature red). But the bulk of the work this year seemed less pop-arty and more focused on telling an exuberant story. To introduce his Target clothing line, Isaac Mizrahi got the full That Girl-mixed-with-Mary Tyler Moore treatment: He dashes around the country, from the Garment District in New York to magical-looking Midwestern cornfields. He’s a natural actor, and as if he’s the kid in the old Barneys commercial all grown-up, he says, “It’s a big country, and you’re gonna need some great shoes.” Target is the discounter that actually makes good on its tagline: “Expect more. Pay less.” And through the varied but always cherry-red executions, the advertising keeps the friskiness afloat.

Just about a year ago, I started hearing a bad Vegas singer on the radio, crooning about holiday savings at Radio Shack, and I thought it was a really unfortunate Paul Shaffer impersonator. And then I got a look at the TV spot and had to force myself to accept the fact that it was indeed the shaven-headed bandleader and musical director himself. Say it ain’t so! The Paul Shaffer who should be knighted on the basis of his performance as Artie Fufkin in This Is Spinal Tap alone! The Paul of SNL bandmeister fame, the guy who year after year plays perfect straight man to David Letterman. His inside-showbiz persona is an ironic take on the swinging cats doing the big acts of the early ’60s. The problem here is that the work (done in-house) turns Shaffer into exactly what he would otherwise parody: a creepy, smarmy guy desperately overplaying to the weird camera angles while singing badly. It’s a nutty, nutty thing—so give it up while you can, babe.


Technology

BEST: Apple iPod “Silhouette” campaign
AGENCY: TBWA\Chiat\Day, Playa del Rey, Calif.

WORST: Dell campaigns
AGENCY: DDB, Chicago

Showing people rockin’ out while listening to music on headphones has to be one of the most awkward acts around in advertising. Having adults attempt to boogie is beyond embarrassing, but even those preteen girls on their pink beds, bopping, and those teenage boys in the kitchen with their big earphones, gyrating, get mighty tiresome. The feeling: non-groovy. On the other hand, listening to music is powerful. One of the miracles of Apple’s iPod advertising, in print and on TV, is that TBWA\Chiat\Day manages to convey the universal experience of music—the emotion, the individuality—in a way that’s cliché-free. It’s the best visual interpretation of listening to music since that Maxell ad from the ’70s with the guy in the modern leather chair literally getting blown away.

On the simplest level, the black silhouettes against the supersaturated purple, yellow, green or magenta backgrounds highlight a product that’s very white—we can easily make out the rectangle and the ear wires. More abstractly, the outlined human forms allow access to everyone, regardless of age, race, gender or income—read into them anything you like. It’s open, it’s liberating, it’s eye-catching, and it’s hip but also a bit nostalgic, recalling the psychedelic concert posters of the late ’60s, as well as Milton Glaser’s poster with the profile of Bob Dylan. As with the device it sells, the advertising is packaged but also customized. And as with everything Apple, it’s iconic, and it works.

There’s nothing like the sight of cow hooves breaking through a living-room ceiling to remind us how inept some computer advertising can be. But since Gateway had relatively little media weight this year, we’re giving Most Annoying Computer Advertising honors to Dell. The actor playing Dell dude Steven turned out to be a stoner, so if you suspected there was something subversive about those weirdly squeaky-clean ads, you were right. DDB in Chicago replaced the dude with the interns, equally overeager in a more programmed, mutantlike way. They get into some wacky situations—making a training video!—but they’re so painfully square, it’s like watching the Coneheads attempt to get along in an office. Plus, the girl intern is scarily imperious, trying to get some of the customer service employees in trouble when they appear to be talking on the phone (oh, the hilarity that ensues!).

The interns, in turn, were dropped for two holiday spots that also come from some parallel universe of humor. One focuses on a Computer Purchase Training Center boot camp whose recruits practice by shouting at a mannequin wearing a “Computer Salesman” T-shirt. “Your PC jargon has no effect on me!” one guy yells. If only we could say the same about the Dell commercials.