The year’s defining moment in advertising? That millisecond flash of the word rats in a fall anti-Gore ad brought to you by the snakes at the Republican National Committee. Remember the outrage? The Democrats cried “subliminal advertising!” but Republicans said it was merely fancy animated typography – a “visual drumbeat” wherein the phrase bureaucrats decide bounced around the screen erratically, with the word segment rats appearing momentarily just by happenstance. Besides, the Republicans pointed out, in the same spot the phrase interfere with doctors bounced around, too, with the frame alighting similarly on the word segment wit. “The Democrats don’t suggest we’re trying to send a subliminal message that Al Gore is a funny guy, do they?” said the Republican Party chairman at the time.
Ha ha ha, not funny. But who knew that one spot would end up accurately presaging our year-end obsession with maddening minutiae and hair-splitting? (“One thirtieth of a second of rats counts!” “Oh, yeah? Well then, wit should count, too!”) God really is in the details. But so’s the devil.
Consider the entire year in advertising, and you’ve got to admit that overall, ads got better – or at least less abusive – toward the end of the year. Think about it: The most appalling advertising effort of the year came right up front: the United Colors of Benetton “We, on Death Row” ad booklet supplement to the January issue of Talk magazine. Remember that political-correctness-run-amok folly? Benetton’s creative director at the time, Oliviero Toscani, thought it would be a swell idea to print full-page pinups and in-depth interviews with inmates awaiting execution in an attempt to raise consciousness about the death penalty and, at the same time, boost awareness of Benetton’s multi-culti clothing brand. To no one’s surprise, except perhaps Toscani’s, the families of the victims of these murderers had no sympathy for jailhouse pronouncements (printed in large type) such as “It’s hard to keep on hoping every day,” and “I think people like seeing other people suffer and killed.”
Advertising also generally improved toward the end of year, of course, simply because of the demise of the dot-coms and their pointless, abrasive, omnipresent attempts at branding. Last January, sixteen Internet companies placed ads on the Super Bowl (compared with next month’s likely two or three), including E*Trade’s unfortunate dancing-chimpanzee spot (from Goodby, Silverstein & Partners), which ended with the tag line “Well, we just wasted 2 million bucks. What are you doing with your money?” A genre-defining moment if there ever was one.
Still, a moment of silence, please, for the sassy, dearly departed Pets.com Sock Puppet (in spots created by TBWA\Chiat\Day), the year’s most entertaining and endearing – if unoriginal – brand mascot. (In an embarrassingly frivolous lawsuit, the now-defunct Pets.com sued comic genius Robert Smigel because his competing creation, foul-mouthed Triumph the Insult Comic Dog of Late Night With Conan O’Brien, was seen as somehow demeaning to the entire canine-hand-puppet community, even though Triumph was around long before Sock.)
The quietest genius on display in advertising came in the form of Arnold Communications’ chill-inducing “Milky Way” ad for the Volkswagen Cabrio, the year’s most perfectly executed spot.
But never mind the dot-coms. The Good Riddance Award should really go to all those ads inspired by the whole Survivor juggernaut. The exception: Reebok’s hilarious nature-trail ad (created by Berlin, Cameron & Partners), wherein a hapless male hiker is obliged to suck snake venom from his buddy’s general upper-thigh region (his pants half down because he’d just taken a leak), prompting a double take from a passing female jogger. “Perhaps Madison Avenue’s first attempt at a gay-oral-sex hard-sell,” Entertainment Weekly observed.
The other funniest ads of the year? Deutsch’s endearingly idiotic guys-in-fruit-costume spots narrated by Snapple’s “Director of Fruit Relations,” who discoursed on how the beverage-maker keeps good fruits from going bad. (They’re enrolled in a Snapple-run reform school, where they engage in wholesome activities, including calisthenics and listening to bedtime stories in their bunk beds.) And those Monty Python-esque Kellogg’s Rice Krispies Treats spots (created by the Leo Burnett agency), showing strange men making even stranger use of the snacks: One fat guy, for instance, fashions a floating poolmate-girlfriend entirely of Treats (tragedy ensues when his dog takes a liking to her, too). Tag line: “Rice Krispies Treats. Best when eaten.” Indeed.
Supermodel Laetitia Casta and supersize model Anna Nicole Smith both did double duty as pitchwomen and lightning rods. Casta’s brilliantly art-directed Diamond.com ad (she’s caught, naked, in a diamond-studded web, the strands of which strategically cover not much more than her nipples) and Smith’s bosom-baring Lane Bryant ad were – thank you, boys! – both banned by the Wall Street Journal for being too racy, which gave both campaigns instant, widespread notoriety. But both women ended up taking Manhattan, towering over Times Square in traffic-stopping billboards.
In the New York outdoor-advertising arena, continuing plaudits are due Target and Evian (both of which made last year’s “Best Of” column, too) for their cleverly executed street posters, transit signage, and billboards. Who knew Target could milk another year’s worth of admiring attention by obsessively emblazoning its simple bull’s-eye logo on the clothing of twentysomethings, their furniture, cars, and housewares, and even a bulldog? It’s a clever commentary on the folly of chasing after pricey designer labels, which suddenly seems all the more on-point given the current economic climate. Evian, meanwhile, wowed with its building-size igloo (it’s made of Evian!) and mermaid (she’s swimming in it!) billboards, ads that winkingly celebrated our culture’s propensity for self-congratulatory coddling.
For the self-pitying and envy-prone, Absolut and Ikea teamed up to post a life-size, three-dimensional studio apartment on a billboard – headlined absolut new york – at the corner of Lafayette and Bond streets, complete with actual Ikea furniture (a bed, dresser, couch, chaise, etc., plus a full bathroom and a working TV) bolted right on to it. Sun-filled, airy, grt vus, fully furn., grt loc.!
They suffered from being totally overexposed, but those terrific Budweiser “Whassup?!” ads – which actually debuted late last year but really only began to blow up in the spring – undeniably transformed the advertising landscape. By April, the Washington Post had declared the campaign a bona fide “cultural phenomenon.” Bud’s agency, DDB Chicago, deserves major credit for working with 33-year-old director Charles Stone III to create some very entertaining variations on the original spot, including the witty “Wasabi?!” spot set at a Japanese restaurant.
The quietest genius on display in advertising came in the form of Arnold Communications’ chill-inducing “Milky Way” ad for the Volkswagen Cabrio, the year’s most perfectly executed spot. Two teenage couples in a Cabrio glide under a starry sky to the lulling, acoustic soundtrack of Nick Drake’s “Pink Moon.” They arrive at their destination – an unseemly frat-type bash pouring out of a brightly lit house – and, exchanging knowing glances, decide to just keep driving. As Smith Galtney wrote in a GQ music column, the spot “presents an epiphany that any person who has lived past the age of 19 has experienced: the euphoric moment when you finally understand that being out of sync with the in crowd isn’t going to kill you; in fact, you might even be a better person because of it.”
VW also scored with its continuing series of incandescent, effervescent New Beetle spots (also created by Arnold Communications), aesthetic brethren of Apple’s stellar iMac commercials (from TBWA\Chiat\Day). In both campaigns, the zippy little products were showcased – usually spinning around hyperactively – against blinding white backgrounds, the better to show off their curvy charms. Part talent show, part beauty pageant, these commercials were little beacons of visual joy, striking just the right balance between sophisticated art direction and cheeky playfulness.
Just as expertly executed were BBDO’s breathtaking Mountain Dew spots, particularly one starring a cast of gold-lamé-clad skaters and bikers in an exuberantly choreographed display of athletic prowess. A steroidal Busby Berkeley musical, tailor-made for MTV-truncated attention spans. Speaking of MTV (which mostly develops its advertising in-house), there is no entertainment brand anywhere with a more masterful, pitch-perfect grasp of how to market itself to its audience. MTV’s promos for its own programming – particularly its fall Video Music Awards print ads, starring Britney Spears as a white-trash sidewalk vendor and the boys of ‘N Sync as improbably butch construction workers – invariably dazzled with their puckish sensibility and cheerfully deranged worldview.
Among fashion retailers, Ikea-meets-the-Gap Swedish chain H&M did the best job of deploying slightly off-kilter celebrities to generate an edgy buzz for its brand. Blanketing the city with phone-booth ads (created in-house) starring Benicio Del Toro and Chloë Sevigny, H&M briefly duped every indie-film-loving Manhattanite into thinking itchy, disposable, unwearable clothing was a bargain just because it was cheap.
Calvin Klein, meanwhile, expanded on last year’s perfectly cast series of young-celebs-on-the-verge portraits by signing up a new crop of cuties like Saturday Night Live’s Jimmy Fallon and actors Chris Klein (no relation) and Vanessa Shaw. But this year Calvin added a creepy visual subtext: perplexingly barren landscapes depicted in the midst of heaving Armageddon. In the ads, Chris Klein doesn’t seem to mind that he’s about to be consumed by a fireball, and Shaw seems entirely indifferent to the fact that the minimal flesh on her bones will soon be flambéed in a tide of molten lava. (What imminent calamity did Klein mean to suggest? A coming recession? A Bush presidency? Survivor II without Richard Hatch?)
Leave it to Calvin to preemptively channel the Zeitgeist, as always, in his advertising: All hell is breaking loose, but nobody seems to care.