MIAMI—At a special session during this year's Clio Awards for advertising, industry legend Oliviero Toscani was honored as a "hero." I'm not sure making ads for a living can really qualify anyone as a hero (unless he spends his spare time plucking kittens from treetops). But Toscani is an intriguing figure, as ad guys go.
He's best known for his work with Benetton in the 1980s and '90s. You may remember his print and billboard ads, which used a multiracial array of striking fashion models to illustrate the "United Colors of Benetton." Those ads were a nice meeting of concept and execution, but as the campaign progressed Toscani grew weirder and weirder. He started slapping a Benetton logo onto actual news photos (like this one of a burning car). One mid-'90s ad simply showed a black horse having sex with a white horse (arched back, dangling hooves, etc.). What this had to do with sweaters remains unclear. But it still gets ad execs all hot and bothered.
This is because ad execs fancy themselves to be gifted artists trapped by the mundanities of commerce. Some of Toscani's ads really do enter the realm of pure art—totally divorced from the stink of any marketing imperatives—but he got away with using such provocative and stylish shots only because he linked the Benetton brand itself to shocking imagery not tethered to any product. Good luck to the modern ad guy who puts mating horses in his next toothpaste commercial. Anyway, one can go only so far down the Toscani path before the trail peters out. It's no surprise to learn that one of Toscani's most notable post-Benetton accomplishments is Cacas: a coffee-table tome containing his photographs of human and animal excrement. "Nine-color printing," Toscani enthused this weekend, discussing the book. "Shit is something we never copy from anyone else. We do it every day, and it is true creativity. Learn from this!" he exhorted the assembled ad workers.
Learn they did, judging by many of the TV commercials I saw this past year.
But let's focus on the positive. The Clios are a time for back-patting, not bitchiness. So on to the winners.
As one award presenter pointed out, radio ads haven't changed much since their invention. While TV and print ads benefit from technological advances like HD, CGI, and Photoshop, nothing significant ever seems to happen in the world of radio spots. Which may help explain why the same campaign wins year after year. Once again, Bud Light's "Real Men of Genius" ads were the jury favorites. (Listen to the spots; their conceit is a salute to guys who embody various oddball facets of modern-day life—talking too loud on cell phones, using comically oversized golf club heads, and so forth.) I see why this campaign is such a hit. The writing is sharp, the framing concept is versatile, and even the background music is somehow humorous. My favorite of this year's batch: The ode to "Mr. Hot Dog Eating Contest Contestant." Sample lyric: "My left arm feels tingly!"
I always love perusing the print-ad finalists. So many clever graphics, with visual jokes that work in any language. The big winner this year was a print campaign for 42 Below vodka. These ads each tell a funny (and generally naughty) narrative through a series of pictograms. The recurring symbol is a bottle of 42 Below vodka, which always leads to subsequent high jinks. My only problem with the campaign is that in many of the ads, drinking vodka leads to a rather unpleasant outcome. For instance, venereal disease. An accurate take, perhaps, but it seems like it might be wiser to elide the nastier consequences of drunkenness.
Some of the more interesting advertising happening now falls into the "Content & Contact" category. (I'm still not clear on what that name means, but it seems to encompass anything that doesn't fit into the other categories.) Last year, Burger King made its own Xbox video games, with the iconic King as a central character. More than 3 million games were sold at $3.99 apiece—which is astonishing, given that people were actually paying to watch an advertisement. Another winner in this category was a campaign for Australia's Victoria Bitter beer. Thousands of plastic figurines of famous cricketer David Boon (called "Boony") were distributed to beer drinkers. The figurines would respond to signals from television sets, aired during cricket matches, by uttering catchphrases that corresponded to the cricket action on-screen. I am quite certain a similar promotion will soon be attempted in America, most likely for next year's Super Bowl. (If so, can we please have a Ricky Williams figurine that says, "I've been very, very blessed to have found yoga"? And then later says, "Pass the bong"?)
Content & Contact is rapidly gaining prestige, but for now the glamour category is still television. The best-in-show winner of this year's grand Clio was an Italian ad for the Ariston Aqualtis washing machine. In what looks to be an underwater nature special, we see fish that turn out to be socks, jellyfish that are actually handkerchiefs, and an eel that's a scarf. The tag line: "Big Inside," as the camera pulls back to show us the washing machine that contains this imaginary world. It's a gorgeous ad—I love the tiny details, like the way out-turned pockets on a pair of pants become pectoral fins. Perhaps the cheekiest bit is turning a pair of brassiere cups into the two halves of a clamshell.
Other winners included: 1) the Sony Bravia "Paint" ad (I've mentioned this one before) in which explosions of paint splatter an apartment complex. 2) An absurdist campaign for Skittles candy, in which a man can control his long beard like a prehensile tail. (I've previously explained why I'm not a huge fan of Skittles' wacky-for-wacky's-sake advertising.) And 3) Dove's "Evolution" Web ad, in which we're let in on the behind-the-scenes effort to turn a regular woman into an unattainable fashion ideal. (Though I've had problems with other Dove commercials, I think this one is great—both attention-grabbing and thought-provoking.)
But my favorite ad of all the finalists didn't win the grand prize, or even a gold. Toyota's "Humanity" spot, from Japan, settled for silver. It shows a car in which every function is performed by humans: A pair of arms serves as a seatbelt; a hand emerging from the dashboard is a cupholder; the airbags are two gentlemen with balloons poised at their lips; instead of a headlight, there's a guy with a flashlight curled up inside the front bumper.
I found this ad witty, charming, and delightfully executed. It's distinctively Japanese, in its adorable cuteness and also its eagerness to meld man and machine. It even has a clear brand message: The "human touch" goes into every part of a Toyota. It was a crowd favorite, drawing the loudest applause of the evening. And were I on the jury, I would have voted it 2007's best.
Disclosure: The Clios paid for Stevenson's accommodations.