Lippert Critiques the Oscar Spots

NEW YORK A Depression theme weaved in and out of Sunday’s 81st annual Academy Awards broadcast. It worked well for David Rockwell’s Art-Deco design for the stage, and for Hugh Jackman’s snappy opening number about a downsized opening number.

But no amount of artful design or clever staging will help the Oscar broadcast if Sean Penn’s Best Actor acceptance speech comes at a time when everyone’s asleep.

The producers vow to do it every year, but they’ve got to get serious about shaving an hour off the telecast. Otherwise, it’s too frustrating to watch, especially if you start early with the pre-game red carpet bloopers, er, presentations. (The show on ABC opened awkwardly with Tim Gunn asking Kate Winslet, “What’s most on your mind tonight?” Her answer? “Not tripping.” And during a discussion of the recent death of his much beloved dog, Mickey Rourke told an interviewer he’d already had “her tux made” for his pet’s big moment with Oscar.) Where do you go from that?

In any event, the ads seemed to match the tone of the evening — with Slumdog Millionaire winning big and advertisers either recycling old commercials (such as MasterCard’s lost doggie) or, in the case of JC Penney, making new ones that focused less on concepts and more on moving merchandise.

Hyundai returned with its extraordinary offer to let buyers return the cars if they lose their jobs. The Korean carmaker also had a message about coming to this country and proving oneself that perfectly fit the Slumdog milieu. A spot with Yo-Yo Ma — previously hyped for the Super Bowl but never released — featured beautiful tension between his cello playing and pounding cuts of the racing Genesis, as part of the “edit-your-own” series for the Genesis Coupe.

Zyrtec was also on the money with its offer: “If you don’t love it, we’ll refund your money.” I’m glad they didn’t call it the “Zyrtec Challenge.” I don’t understand what’s so challenging about simply buying the product.

Coke offered two disappointing Diet Coke spots — one with Heidi Klum for women’s heart health (Heart Truth’s Red Dress Collection), the other featuring Top Chef star Tom Colicchio. Klum poked fun at over-the-top fashion by modeling some doozies, then entering a room where  all the women wore red — which came off a bit too dazzling to seem simple.

The spot with Colicchio criticized over-the-top food, especially “shrimp in nests,” which seemed to be a jab at a past show contestant. But alas, the “bad taste” visuals in both cases seemed downright clichéd. Plus, particularly for Chef Tom, the setup led to an unconvincing second half.

“When you start with good taste, you don’t need anything else,” Colicchio says, as he flicks away a bartender’s added dodad and raises a giant glass of Diet Coke. The glass is so oversized that he can barely hold it, never mind imbibe. What I’m not swallowing is the connection between this sophisticated foodie and the diet drink.

The big surprise of the evening sponsor-wise was TrueNorth snacks. They make nut products, or as the awkwardly gerund-ish, not quite funny enough tagline states: “Turning an ordinary nut into an extraordinary snack.”

Not surprisingly, previous spots using the phrase “nut snack” were widely parodied on the Internet. Now the company has made a complete image turnaround into the land of change and hope.

The four spots had a very Kashi-ish vibe mixed with an Obama-esque determination to make a difference, which all somehow came off without seeming overly earnest. It turns out that the brand comes out of Frito-Lay. (I think it would do the parent company some good to be more transparent about that fact, and build up its do-gooder cred after all that Doritos bad-boy mayhem. This way, it seems as if they’re hiding something, like Gallo Wines and Bartles & Jaymes.)

Consumers were asked to submit their inspirational stories to a TrueNorth Web site. The winner received a $25,000 cash prize and the honor of getting her story directed by Helen Hunt.

But all the spots (from independent agency StrawberryFrog) had a great graphic look, including one featuring the founder of Penny Harvest, a program that helps children gather pennies and donate the money to kids in need. The shot of some kids bathing in a sea of copper — a tub of the gazillions of collected pennies — was charming. A second spot talked about a program that greens the South Bronx, a story that begs to be told on camera.

The winning story belongs to ex-cop Lisa Nigro, who founded the Inspiration Cafe, which serves Chicago’s homeless just like a restaurant, not a food line, and also helps with job training and placement. Hunt has a good eye, particularly in the portraits of the cafe’s patrons.

Indeed, the people profiled seemed to have incredible “Aha!” moments — to borrow a theme line that Mutual of Omaha debuted. That’s a memorable line for the insurance company (“Omahaha,” after all.) But those insurance commercials — for example, one guy decides to become a trainer — didn’t have the payoff that the TrueNorth work offered.

Wow, a nut with a message. That’s entertainment for our neo-Depressing times.