For a brief moment, at the start of the year, it almost seemed like the flash flood of e-dollars cascading toward ad agencies might finance a much-needed creative boom. What better opportunity to tear up the advertising rule books? An industry like new media, created overnight, needs -- demands -- a fresh approach to brand-building.
Mullen Advertising's Monster.com spot, which first appeared during the Super Bowl, was a promising kickoff. It featured sweet-faced kids spouting caustic adult sentiments about career stagnation ("When I grow up, I want to be paid less for doing the same job"; "I want to claw my way up to middle management") and two consecutive dead-on tag lines: "What did you want to be?" followed by "There's a better job out there." The message: Log on now and avoid job-induced soul death.
But it's all been pretty much downhill since January. A disturbing number of agencies seem to have decided that the only way to break through all the e-clutter is with attitude -- shrill, in-your-face, teeth-rattling attitude. The common arsenal: abrasive voice-overs, toilet humor, even animal abuse.
Redemption came only in the flurry of recent holiday-season ads, particularly those from Amazon.com (its irresistible toy spot stars maniacally grinning, sweater-clad singers who look like they were exhumed from The Lawrence Welk Show) and Pets.com, which has an icon-in-the-making with its Sock Puppet, a sassy, diminutive mutt that MTV should pair up in a Celebrity Deathmatch with the Taco Bell chihuahua. In the end, some of the year's most risk-taking creative work came not from the flush, supposedly forward-thinking dot-coms but from old-school brick-and-mortar retailers.
You don't need a vest, and you certainly don't need another pair of khakis. So how did The Gap persuade you to stock up? Simple: by insisting you buy the stuff! Surely there was no more compelling campaign than the Gap's belligerent, beautiful "Everybody in . . ." TV commercials, print ads, and the building-size billboards that took Manhattan. The Gap, which uses an in-house agency, takes the prize not just for mind-share-hogging ubiquity but for iconic elegance (spare white backgrounds, minimal type), terse copywriting ("Everybody in vests"), and deadpan humor (motionless models delivering a catatonic cover of Madonna's "Dress You Up"). Everybody reacted: Rage Against the Machine, Redman, and the VH1/Vogue Fashion Awards all parodied the spots. Animal-rights activists reworded a midtown EVERYBODY IN LEATHER billboard to read EVERYBODY IN DEATH last month. And even Jerry Seinfeld engaged in a "Point/Counterpoint" skit with himself (or, rather, Jerry Seinfeld as channeled by Jimmy Fallon) on Saturday Night Live. Fallon: "Those commercials! They're not even dancing for us anymore!" Seinfeld: "Yeah, just this sullen line of teenage automatons barking out orders!"
The maddeningly uninspired campaigns Madison Avenue ground out for car companies this year came in just two flavors: car ads that seemed like fashion ads (aerial shots of a four-by-four cheekily perched cliffside, Eyes Wide Shut-style slow-mo pans of buttery leather interiors) and car ads that seemed like public-service announcements (faux narratives about fanatically loyal factory wage slaves who could humble Martha Stewart with their obsessive attention to detail). Only Arnold Communications' work for Volkswagen -- particularly its incandescent Beetle spots ("Turbonium") -- had any traction.
But forget cars. The year's most transporting brand work was DDB's campaign for Acela, Amtrak's high-speed trains (slated for a fall debut, they're now set to roll next year). Can you envision an entirely hassle-free, Zen-calm business trip? This campaign can and does, with tag lines like "ARRIVE at a decision" and "RETURN your mind to its upright position." The Acela ads suggested a world unto itself, a sort of hermetically sealed think-tank-on-wheels for Fast Company types who are coolly, confidently inventing the new economy.
"With an omnipresent series of street and magazine ads, Target has elevated its logo to iconic status -- a retail symbol as recognizable as Tiffany's robin's-egg-blue box."
Perhaps there was no more hermetically sealed world, though, than the one created by Shahid & Co. and photographer Bruce Weber for Abercrombie & Fitch. (Picture the Biosphere populated by nothing but strapping youths cavorting in various states of undress.) The point has been made that the ongoing, racier-than-ever print campaign represents the triumph of homoerotic imagery in service to the heterosexual economy (the kids paying $29.50 for those A&F-logo tees are mostly Korn-fed frat boys and their perfectly 'N Sync girlfriends). What's newsworthy here is that the stand-alone A&F Quarterly represents the triumph of the "magalogue," advertisement disguised as editorial. When A&FQ debuted in fall 1997 -- under the editorship of Wallpaper* founder Tyler Brûlé -- the cover price was $4 and the page count was 130. Now A&FQ's cover price is $6, it pushes 300 pages, and it has more than 100,000 paying subscribers ($12 a year for a catalogue!). A&FQ, even with its matte stock, out-Condé Nasts Condé Nast, and that must annoy the hell out of James Truman.
There are plenty of fans who appreciate A&F's Medici-like subsidization of Weber's homoerotic oeuvre (there's a booming market in A&FQ back issues on eBay), but the bigger story is that young people are now, more than ever, willing to pay for the privilege of consuming advertising messages directed at them. How sweetly pathetic that all those Seattle WTO protesters lobbed rocks at the storefronts of such obvious targets (NikeTown, Starbucks) while American consumers devour post-journalistic product like A&FQ, Wallpaper*, Martha Stewart Living, and InStyle.
Speaking of InStyle, has there been any more honest brand-identity campaign than its now in magazine form ads, which equate InStyle with chocolate cake and bunny slippers?
The usual titans of broadcast branding -- ABC (black type on yellow background), NBC (hyperactive programming promos), and ESPN (those wry SportsCenter ads) -- seemed stuck in reruns. One broadcaster that did break out of the pack: MSG Network, with its "More angles, more insight" commercials, particularly the one that features NHL pinup Todd Harvey. Defying expectations, the spot offers only a fleeting shot of Harvey and instead focuses on Jim Ramsay, the Rangers' medical trainer. He gestures toward a backlit X-ray while delivering a little lecture about the athlete's bone-fusing thumb surgery -- designed, he explains with a gee-whiz grin, so that Harvey can "grab on to a cup of coffee. Or a hockey stick." Of course, injury fetishization was this year's sports-marketing tactic of choice, but the MSG spot takes the earnest edge off this by-now-boilerplate victory-at-all-costs message with a wry bit of humor. And, of course, it serves up the violently compelling deep-background trivia that is MSG's stock-in-trade.
Invariably pitch-perfect brand marketer MTV also broke out of the pack with its "Sound of . . ." identity campaign. In one spot, titled "Sound of First Love," a bleary-eyed guy with a pen and a cassette case in his hands ponders what sad song to dub next on the mix tape he's making. The camera pans around his dorm room, the floor littered with CDs (the tape is for an ex-boyfriend, which we gather from a quick glimpse of a framed photograph of the two of them in romantic embrace). In another spot, a slow tracking shot follows a skinny misfit down the hallway of a high school as he's alternately mocked and jostled by jocks, ignored by a teacher, and given a "what-ever" look by disgusted blonde girls. He has headphones on, though, and we're hearing what he's hearing -- T. Rex's "20th Century Boy" -- and when he finishes walking the gauntlet, you know the kid's gonna be all right: He's got the very slightest of grins on his face.
Music as salvation. Even if you're not a teenager, it's hard not to find these expertly directed spots heart-achingly resonant.