Guest Critic: Duncan Milner, TBWA Media Arts Lab

You know that Joni Mitchell song “Big Yellow Taxi?” The one where they “paved paradise and put up a parking lot”? The one where she points out, “You don’t know what you’ve got ’till it’s gone”? That’s how I felt watching a few of the 30+ spots Adweek asked me to review as there were a number of “just OK” spots for brands that used to be known for creating great ads. Ads that had once inspired jealousy, won awards and spawned imitators. What happened to those ads? Where did they go?

E*Trade “One Finger”: In a series of quick cuts we see things a person can do with one finger, from “saving Holland” by sticking your finger into a dike to “reallocating your entire investment portfolio.” It was working pretty hard trying to communicate “one click” and maybe that was the problem. I miss E*Trade’s hilariously insightful ads of the past, like the one in which an uninspired trader makes his way to the office as the voiceover asks, “If your trader is so great, why’s he still working?” Those ads are what helped build the brand. They’re the ones that got me to open an account. I miss that stuff.

MasterCard “Ella Phant”: This one was a big disappointment for me. Not that it was bad. It wasn’t at all. It was just OK. And I love this campaign. It’s been enduring and endearing.

In this spot we see a zookeeper who’s under the weather, sniffling and sneezing as he tends to his elephant. When the zookeeper leaves, the elephant picks up his MasterCard and heads into town, where he thoughtfully picks up hot soup, tissues and other cold remedies. As he delivers them to the zookeeper’s home, the voiceover says, “Making it all better, priceless.” Granted, the spot has some heavy lifting to do as it tries to communicate the ease of use of MasterCard’s PayPass system, but as well executed as it is, it just comes up short of this campaign’s great spots of the past.

FedEx “Not What It Seems”: This also fell into the “just OK” category. In it we visit a group of co-workers in an office. As they discuss shipping a package using FedEx Ground, one of the workers expresses the opinion that “ground” doesn’t sound very fast. The others then admonish him for judging things solely by their name. Comedy ensues. For a brand that traditionally has had famous advertising, this spot comes up short

Coca-Cola “Especially Today Timeline” and “First Taste”: A couple of brands, including this one, made strides in getting back to the values that defined them in the past. These two spots feel like the Coca-Cola we’re all familiar with. While “Especially Today Timeline” was more poignant, “First Taste” made me smile. In this well-crafted spot we see an elderly gentleman sitting in a nondescript retirement home being offered a Coke by a kindly young nurse. He comments, “Hmm, never had one of those” and takes a sip. After enjoying the Coke, he wonders what else he might have missed out on and in a series of quick vignettes we see him confessing his love to an old girlfriend, diving off the high board into a pool, getting a tattoo, running with the bulls and, finally, racing down the street on a motorcycle with a grin on his face. Not only did it capture the youthfulness and fun I’ve always associated with Coca-Cola, but it did so in an interesting, fresh and playful way.

It’s hard to do great ads, and harder yet to sustain that greatness spot after spot. But I can’t help but be discouraged when I see “great” settle into “OK.” Maybe there are good reasons for this, but it sure makes me want to tear up the parking lot and replant paradise.