Barbara Lippert’s Critique: The Oscar Goes To …

There was painfully little buzz last week leading up to the Academy Awards, so fedora-wearing blogger Matt Drudge had to invent some. First-time host Chris Rock actually answered a journalist’s questions honestly, causing Drudge to set off a viral alarm. “I never watched the Oscars. Come on, it’s a fashion show,” Rock told the interviewer. “What straight black man sits there and watches the Oscars? Show me one!”

The producers could hardly balk—that’s why they hired Rock: to give the stilted, semi-moribund broadcast some new blood (and new viewers). For “Oscar” (love that), it was a godsend, not the kiss of death. Later, Rock clarified his statement on The Tonight Show while, amazingly, still not lying. (Post-Hugh Grant, Leno is now the standard stop for a self-deprecating mea culpa.) “The awards don’t really affect anybody’s lives in the crowd,” Rock admitted. “Meanwhile, the Nobel Peace Prize, there’s no one there. Nobody cares what the scientists are wearing. What are you wearing, Professor Allen? ‘Pants!’ ”

All of his comments were right on the money, including his advice for acceptance speeches: “Don’t thank God. God’s busy working on the tsunami, so leave him alone.”

Still, advertisers are thanking somebody up there for the Academy Awards, because just like that old Woody Allen joke about the eggs, when it comes to old-time glam, we need ’em.

In the glam area, we’ve all been Joan Rivers-ized: With actresses fearful of getting bad reviews on their outfits, the biggest ad bonanza goes to the designers who “dress” the stars while currying their own celebrity status.

Speaking of celeb designers on a much more mass level, JC Penney broke a campaign on the Oscars promoting two new Marthas of the JC Penney fashion world—Nicole Miller and Michele Bohbot—and another new Martha for the Martha world, Chris Madden. The three spots I saw use models and are hardly earth-shattering, but there is some nice graphic business with words forming a moving box (referring to the “It’s all inside” tagline) and surprisingly good yet subtle chick-friendly music: Lilix’s remake of the song “What I Like About You” and the Dido song “Don’t Leave Home.”

Pepsi went for a more muscular, cast-of-thousands-in-the-desert approach, which would seem to say Super Bowl more than Academy Awards, except it uses film clips. Using a movie from 1960 will hardly give Pepsi a cutting-edge, 21st-century image, but this is a clever pick—the key scene from Spartacus (not the bathing scene with Tony Curtis, of course). In this (perfectly matched) cola-rized version, the guy on horseback holds up a brown-bag lunch bearing the name “Spartacus” in faux-Greco Roman lettering. Cut to the actual “I am Spartacus!” slave scene, where many men face instant death by standing up and saying those three words to protect the actual sparky slave, Kirk Douglas. It’s a fantastic thing to hear “I am Spartacus!” in the original basso profundo movie voices, over and over. Finally, with everyone copping to it, the guy on horseback takes the Pepsi for himself, and Kirk Douglas cries. Chances are there were no other ads on the Oscars with guys in armored plates, and it’s funny.

There’s also a new spot for Diet Pepsi showing cans coming to life late at night in a store refrigerator case, a device that allows the bottler to take swipes not only at Diet Coke but at bottled waters and lemon-lime drinks (odd, considering Pepsi’s other brands). The Diet Pepsi is the James Dean of the case—he needs to escape and rock out, man, while the others all complain about the loud, crazy music. The animation is kind of cute, and I like Estelle Harris (George’s mother on Seinfeld) as the voice of one of the uptight downstairs-neighbor cans. But the whole idea of Diet Pepsi being the only seriously “cool can” because it bops to less geriatric music is itself pretty uncool.

MasterCard has also established a big-event presence with the now 7-year-old “Priceless” campaign; two new spots still manage to be delightfully engaging. One promotes the idea of high-end vacation travel in Europe and is also high concept, so it takes some figuring out: In gorgeously shot scenes, we see the running of the bulls in Pamplona, cyclists moving through the vineyards of southern France, a fallen gelato in Rome, and an opera in Vienna. It turns out it’s not the people with the cards who are on holiday; it’s the Spanish bull, who invades every scene (Pamplona wasn’t big enough for him?). The spot ends in a pasture in Switzerland, where it looks like Señor Toro is going to hook up with some fine Swiss Misses (cows).

Although set at the counter of yet another gas-station convenience store, the second spot is the real stunner, because it outs the long-time voice of the “Priceless” campaign, Billy Crudup. He’s not really recognizable as he stands at the register, tallying a couple’s chips and Slurpee purchases, but it becomes clear as he addresses them that he is Mr. Voiceover, and something clever is happening on two levels. I actually felt a Wizard of Oz moment—”Don’t look at that man behind the counter!” Anyway, it’s a brave move, but surprising in that it would seem to augur the end of the road, a jump-the-shark moment.

For the “Priceless” series, and the Academy Awards, let’s hope the shark stays down.