Barbara Lippert’s Critique: Everything’s Possible

I flew back from the Clios last week with the words to “The Impossible Dream” ringing in my ears (“And I know if I’ll only be true, to this glorious quest”). Maybe that’s because it’s the score for the Honda commercial that took the Grand Clio. I loved the spot, but the song is a distressing one to have rattling around in your head: as a Broadway standard, it’s got the kind of heavy build and super-corny lyrics that could be considered pure kitsch, except that it was written for the Man of La Mancha, a musical about that classic 17th-century dude and antihero, Don Quixote. Idealistic but impractical, he was the original “tilting at windmills” guy. So in the context of his noble but disastrous quests to fight injustice, the song becomes less corny and just plain heartbreaking.

Poignant, frustrating, crazy-making and even perhaps quixotic—here I speak not only of the Don, but also the semi-hysterical hand wringing at the festival over the need to shift away from TV. First, let’s all calm down: We’re talking about using new digital tools and technologies, not a biblical Day of Reckoning.

Naturally, someone like Bob Greenberg, who got the Lifetime Achievement Award, is going to use the occasion to announce that the 30-second spot is dead and make a call to arms for interactive solutions—that’s what he has built his brand on (at least in his most recent lifetime). At the same time, the idea of penalizing creatives inside agencies for coming up with TV solutions—as is happening in some places—is as extreme and ridiculous as relying on TV alone.

Three guys from Ogilvy & Mather New York (David Apicella, Jan Leth and Chris Wall) spoke to just this predicament in a seminar called “We’re in Charge of the Big Dead Agency. Or Is It the Dead Big Agency?” One thing I came away with was this useful quote from Harry Truman: “Everything is possible as long as you don’t care who gets the credit.” I can’t remember which guy said it, but feel free to steal it and say it’s your own.

I’d like to amend that to “everything is possible, until you start making impossibly narrow categories that start getting too precious.” The Clios proved that there’s good work being done in every category, but the newer, more innovative ones are kind of boring to explain at awards ceremonies.

One Internet piece that’s easy to explain but earned an inexplicable silver—it’s easily gold-worthy—was for FedEx from DDB Brasil, São Paolo. Simple and brilliant, it’s a real-time digital clock, with numbers constructed out of the now-iconic FedEx boxes, and it sits on your computer. It makes the point that the brand is all about on-time delivery, but the takeaway is much greater than that: as a device, it’s infinite, like the Internet itself.

This year’s Grand Clio print winner, for PlayStation 2, from TBWA\Paris, also plays with the idea of infinite space. A metaphor for getting into level after level of a video game, it’s a compelling rendition of the inside of a young man’s cranium. The head is neatly split open, and from what we get to see of his face, the guy is a poster boy for a perfect, Benetton-nation style blend of humanity. The view inside the cranium suggests a drawing by Hieronymus Bosch. (And raises the question of the marvels H.B. could have done with the magic of CG.) Incredibly detailed and beautifully rendered, it’s either an illustration of various circles of hell or the floors of a particularly crowded Diesel store, with a bomb exploding on the bottom and eyeballs posted along a column. Along the way, there are various Rube Goldberg-like devices that seem sexual (including what looks like a rotating spanking machine). You can spend as much time looking at the ad as you can with a PlayStation game. That’s interactive.

Dreams were a big theme this year, and the Grand Clio winner for TV (for an unprecedented third year in a row) was the Honda campaign, which included the aforementioned spot with the Don Q music. The reason it works so well, Tony Davidson, the cd of Weiden + Kennedy London, said at a Clio panel, is because it’s the truth: all those forms of transportation shown were engineered, or embraced, by pioneering company founder Soichiro Honda. After the war, he made an affordable motorbike for the masses, with a cut through for women’s skirts. And he started the company because he wanted to race (he developed the 1965 Formula 1 Grand Prix-winning car that’s shown).

The spot is disruptive and constantly surprising. It starts with a guy stepping out of his trailer, in full biker gear, and onto a tiny monkey bike. He’s tall and lanky with weird facial hair and a face made for a protective helmet. The juxtaposition of big and small is as jarring and freakishly amusing as a circus act. I thought the vehicles he’s shown riding would get increasingly larger, but instead, they get increasingly faster. And while the spot is funny, it’s complex and layered, and in the end, haunting. I thought the jump over the waterfall would mean our driver was going the way of Thelma and Louise, but instead, he ascends in a Honda balloon (the slowest of all devices). He gestures upward, Eva Perón style, as he lip-synchs the final words to the song (“to reach the unreachable star …”), and what could have seemed ridiculous comes off as endearing.

Our hero is an odd countercultural figure, as if Don Quixote became one of the guys in Easy Rider. The spot is inspiring and sentimental, but also coated with irony. The result is hard to categorize, but it’s probably safe to say that, even via TV, it raises some powerful, fully integrated emotions.