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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.


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