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Notes from Effie-land, where every campaign is 'amazing'

On my flight to New York to judge the finals of this year's Effie Awards, I worked my way through the usual stack of magazines, newsletters, trades and the rest. I was gripped by the sameness of all the news. Sluggish economy. Slow recovery. Standstill. Tentative spending. Sputtering consumer confidence.

So you can imagine my relief when I finally arrived and started reading the cheery Effie briefs and creative submissions. I entered a new world of absolutely stupendous consumer response to just about everything. Campaign sales results —the hallmark of this esteemed award—were "astounding," "dramatic," "almost unbelievable," "we surprised even ourselves."

According to one official at the New York chapter of the American Marketing Association, the longtime sponsor of the Effies, there was a record number of entries this year. Of course, this also meant there was a record number of glittering clichés, "amazing results" and exclamation points lathering up the submissions.

Since I am bound by a confidentiality agreement, I can't reveal exactly how many more exclamation points there were than usual. But I can tell you that "amazing" still reigns as the leading Effie adjective. It was interesting to see that "whopping," which apparently had fallen out of favor in recent years, made something of a comeback. One submission described a sales result as "a whopping 600 percent over our goal." I suppose a regular 600 percent jump would be hardly worth talking about.

You've got to admire all the clients and agencies whose accomplishments "exceeded all expectations." (Who says the economy is still in the doldrums?) Of course, much of this success comes not just from research but from "extensive research" and "in-depth research."

One entry listed a company's sales objective as a 0.2 percent increase over the previous year. This spoke so much louder than what a mere mortal would prosaically describe as "flat."

Thankfully, definitions of target audiences have also become much more vivid. After slogging through my piles of briefs, I began to wonder who isn't living an "active, busy lifestyle" and whether the ubiquitous "notoriously fickle consumer" isn't simply code for someone that "nobody—including us—has been able to figure out."

One way to solve an awful lot of problems, it seemed, was to add the word fun to a brand's positioning. I saw so many "fun" strategies, you'd think that without ad agencies the world would be a pretty dreary place.

When they weren't fun, they were important. One brief described a campaign that "forever changed the way the world looked at [brand name here]." It must have been powerful stuff, since the media section pointed out that the work ran only in a single Southern state.

Speaking of media, few briefs let a real media idea get in the way of extremely novel tactics, such as using television. Spending was an interesting area, too. Many briefs played for the sympathy vote by letting us know how the company was "dramatically" outspent by the competition. I didn't review a single submission that dared admit a sufficient level of support.

All that said, the Effies are still the best thing going. They are the only awards I have ever really cared about. A number of briefs were gemlike beauties—spare but interesting, detective-story style reads, without the excess. I'm certain my fellow judges appreciated these as much as I did. Nobody likes the extravagant language or gilded-lily claims of astounding success.

A former director of the admissions office at Harvard said it best: "The thicker the folder, the thinner the boy." Next year, do the Effie judges and your submissions a favor. Be straightforward, lose the exclamation points and put away the thesaurus.