The Year in Review: From Funky to Junky

Oh, the pain and sadness of this year – the insomnia, the public meltdown, the need to be institutionalized. Wait a minute, that was Mariah Carey, not the ad industry. But in the face of the huge financial hit that advertising took in the past 12 months, the agencies and clients who were brave enough to take creative risks in 2002 deserve honors.

In some cases, corporate corruption and the economy provided great fodder for creative excellence. New Charles Schwab shop GSD&M broke a spot for the client shortly after yet another Wall Street scandal erupted, an e-mail showing that a Merrill Lynch analyst had privately disparaged the stocks he’d publicly touted. Presciently, the commercial shows a sales manager at a brokerage firm revving up the troops to sell the shady offering of the day, exhorting them with, “Let’s put some lipstick on this pig.” (Thinking the line was a swipe at Merrill, CBS refused to run the spot.)

It’s subtle enough to show the burnout of the sales manager and the almost-reluctant faces of the brokers who have to go fleece the customers. The spot effortlessly distances Schwab from the rest of the Wall Street hordes, and offers something more than “stay the course.”

Heineken and agency D’Arcy used all that skulduggery to great effect in a holiday spot. Dean Martin sings “Let It Snow,” picture-perfect flakes fall outside an office building, and inside some holiday pod people are enjoying a company party. We’re about to glaze over from all the faux yuletide cheer when the camera sweeps up to the penthouse, where sleazy guys in suits are madly shredding paper, dumping boxes of the stuff out the windows (hence snow, 21st-century style). “To all those who weren’t naughty this year,” the title card reads, “happy holidays.” What a clever way for a beer client to capture the moral high ground. And it wasn’t even telling us to shred responsibly.

After a bitter corporate battle, the merger between Compaq and HP is complete, the logo bears a peaceful, Swiss-looking plus sign and the company can do some real work: go after bad guys. As part of Goodby, Silverstein & Partners’ first work for the client, “Digital Crime Fighting” shows a criminal being collared by some unseen force in a dark-ish Euro-locale. The journey is mysterious and riveting – who is this man getting dragged to a police van? Wait, we see a computer cursor on his neck. “Using HP mobile technology to get information quickly and easily, the world’s police forces now fight crime digitally,” the super says. Cursor, foiled again. Given the anxiety about terror attacks, it’s timely and assuaging.

It was a good year for Goodby, and for car advertising. The agency set the bar higher with “Sheet Metal,” the smart and artful new brand anthem for Saturn. A car spot with no cars, set to Bach piano music, it shows people tapping around the roads on foot, stripped of their automotive armor. It’s the kind of inventive human concept that elevates advertising in the eyes of consumers.

BMW has used that sort of inventiveness to bypass TV altogether for two different brands. The best of this year’s series of BMW Films from Fallon was Tony Scott’s “Beat the Devil.” Better produced and sharper than the average movie, the Web short offers James Brown musing on his mortality and Gary Oldman as the perfect contemporary devil.

Crispin Porter + Bogusky also took a detour from the usual media routes in its work for BMW’s Mini Cooper. The highlight was having the Mini tour various cities while mounted atop a Ford Excursion.
Nike still manages to use the tube exceptionally. “Big Bang,” a wildly inspired three-spot series for Nike basketball from Wieden + Kennedy in Portland, Ore., is a re-creation of ’70s “outlaw” basketball. The footage looks completely Gerald Ford-era, set off by music from the masters of funk, Bootsy Collins and George Clinton.

There are two other award-worthy campaigns from Nike. A soccer spot from Wieden in Amsterdam features a funky monster ship on which a “Secret Tournament” is played. Directed by Terry Gilliam, with music by the King, it made a monster hit of the Elvis remix “A Little Less Conversation.” And the Presto campaign qualifies for honors in bizarre foreignness (a category in which Ikea’s Swedish guy from CP+B gets honorable mention). The spots were shot in a Paris housing complex, but it could have been Mars, an oddness compounded by bad dubbing in two languages and an angry chicken.

On a much more serious note, CP+B and Arnold again took aim at the tobacco industry through the American Legacy Foundation’s “Truth” campaign, famous for its brutal, take-no-prisoners style. This year the highlight was the giant rat who drags himself up the stairs of a New York subway station, gasps for air and collapses on the sidewalk. He carries a sign: “There’s cyanide in cigarette smoke. Same as in rat poison.”

The Gap has basically been doing the same spot for the past five years, but the “Stripes” holiday commercial from Trey Laird + Partners is recognizable Gap for all the right reasons. It’s clear, focused, upbeat, democratic (appealing to people of all stripes). You can watch it again and again and find something new (fortunate, considering how often it runs). And the music sends a message to oldsters, who were, notably, prominent in the fall campaign.

From striped to stripped, but still dancing: Who would have thought a year ago that a hyper, nearly naked guy gyrating in his undies would replace the highfalutin Martha Stewart in Kmart’s ad iconography? Luckily for the embattled retailer, and TBWA\Chiat\Day, the Joe Boxer guy has done just that. (And Kmart has recorded $200 million in Joe Boxer sales since the campaign’s July launch.) A man with his motor running, Vaughn Lowery has achieved cult status with his lit-up exuberance, stripped-down bod and idiosyncratic moves to “boxer nova” music. The Christmas ad, in which Lowery does the “antler boogie” while unwrapping the silver gift, er, package covering his Santa undies, is cheesy-hilarious.

Speaking of putting the ass back in Christmas, never before have I seen so much attention paid to Santa’s derriere. There’s a Preparation H ad involving Santa, but the ultimate low comes from Lowe’s healthcare agency, Alchemy, for Imodium. The product category is a tough one, but the TV and print work is so much more awful than it has to be. “Where will you be when your diarrhea comes back?” it asks as Santa’s boots dangle in the fireplace, a dog licking at his heels. Not only is it disgusting, but the imagery is all wrong: getting stuck in a chimney conveys constipation, not the opposite problem.

Some people rely on credit, not Santa, so why not send in the Goths? I suppose someone thinks they’re funny, but I find D’Arcy’s Capital One ads laughably bad. Perhaps the client believes in the old idea that likability does not translate into effectiveness. For several years the “What’s in your wallet?” campaign has been packed with plunderers – gladiators, pirates, etc. – who go medieval on the asses of consumers not in the know about Cap’s features. It’s as well acted as a grammar-school play. This year guys in low-rent-Dr. Seuss white hairy outfits (yetis?) descend on a Swiss chalet. It’s just like Mike’s Hard Lemonade’s “Alien Abduction,” except the Capital One people seem to think the costumes are convincing.

I have a question for DDB Chicago: Dell, where’s my dude? Steven was less surfer or stoner than passive-aggressive Eddie Haskell type, thus the perfect vessel for the creepy hard sell. He was the goofball killer – a bad combo, with many layers of annoyance, but the line is a genuine catchphrase, and he’s certainly better than the interns trying to have personalities who now populate the Dell spots. Their high jinks are straight out of the Darren Stevens school of advertising.

Steven may have been sidelined, but somehow Carrot Top is still plugging away for 1-800-Call-ATT, in a campaign that’s The Gong Show of advertising (and he is our Rip Torn). In the rest of the largely annoying phone category, all of the wireless campaigns are bothersome, but Verizon’s “Can you hear me now?” from Bozell seems to sound a particularly hollow chord these days. (In fact, the line was repeated recently in Communications Workers of America ads by unhappy Verizon employees, to devastating effect. After mentioning executive pay packages, a soon-to-be-laid-off worker rhetorically asks management, “Can you hear me now?”)

The worst of the worst in 2002 had to be Cliff Freeman and Partners’ Midas spot, quickly yanked off the air, in which an old woman at a Midas counter is so happy with the service that she rips open her blouse and asks, “What can you do with these?” Plummeting elder breasts – what a way to sell mufflers! The joke is so old it probably prefigures little boys peeking at naked women in National Geographic. And why would Midas want to alienate its female customers?

Here’s to a better 2003. Mariah’s already made a comeback (she’s “made it through the rain”), and I’m sure we will too.