MIAMI—This year, the featured guest speaker at the Clio Awards festival—the ad world's version of the Oscars—was artist Ralph Steadman. Best known for the illustrations that accompanied many of Hunter S. Thompson's books and articles, Steadman delivered a bizarre lecture that began with an imagined conversation between Marcel Duchamp and Luis Buñuel. From there, he moved to reminiscing about a few of his and Thompson's gonzo-est moments. (You can read about these in great detail in Steadman's entertaining memoir, The Joke's Over.) He closed his presentation with a charming song he'd composed, which he crooned while accompanying himself on a ukulele he suddenly produced from behind the lectern. When the ditty was done and the subsequent standing ovation had ebbed, he gave thanks and—though it was still midday—requested a glass of wine.
What did all this have to do with advertising? Not much, as far as Steadman was concerned. He's done some illustrations for ad campaigns (his nominal connection to the event), but his attitude toward the profession ranged from fierce indifference to gentle contempt. He complained that an idea he'd submitted to a liquor company—for a product he named "Bone Dry Gin," the bottle of which would be encased in replica chicken bones—had gotten little traction. He projected a slide of a drawing he'd made of the gates of hell and mumbled, "Some of you will no doubt end up there, particularly as you're in advertising." He wondered what the people in the crowd did all day, musing, "I guess you figure out how to sell more crispies?"
Selling more crispies—or, rather, Shreddies—was indeed the goal of the campaign that took home the weekend's Grand Clio award for "integrated campaigns" (meaning it used multiple media platforms to get its message out). Created on behalf of a Canadian cereal brand, this winking campaign sought to convince viewers that boring old square Shreddies had been radically reimagined as "New Diamond Shreddies." (In fact, the piece of cereal photographed on the front of the box had simply been rotated 45 degrees.) It's a self-deprecating approach that makes the brand seem appealingly goofy. But I couldn't get past the rebuke to the consumer that is central to the joke: The product has not been changed or improved in any way—it just has a sly new marketing gimmick. This is by no means an uncommon occurrence in the world of advertising, but rarely does an agency make the empty hucksterism quite so explicit.
The other best-in-show Grand Clios awarded this year left me similarly underwhelmed. The Grand Clio for television and cinema ads, for instance, went to a set of spots for the Xbox video game Halo 3. Set in the future, the ads show elderly gents walking through a "Museum of Humanity" that commemorates our victory in an epic war against an alien aggressor. These traumatized veterans of the conflict solemnly recall their darkest moments on the battlefield. The ads do a great job of lending gravitas and emotion to the product, and they're well-written and beautifully produced. They are essentially, however, a parody of those somber documentaries in which teary-eyed old men recount storming the beaches of Normandy or shivering in snowy foxholes during the Battle of the Bulge. I have trouble reconciling the horrible sadness of those true stories with a big-budget effort to sell a best-selling, shoot 'em up video game. Maybe I'm uptight, but for me it's just a teensy bit over the line.
Among the vast array of shortlisted entries, my personal favorites (none of which received a Grand Clio) included:
—A Gold-winning ad for wind energy made by a German agency, in which wind is personified by an oafish fellow who's always causing trouble for the people around him. The crowd at the awards show burst into startled laughter during opening shots in which the brute lifts a woman's dress up to her armpits and then throws a fistful of sand in a child's face. The punch line: He at last finds his proper place in society by providing an alternative power source.
—A pair of Silver-winning ads from Thailand, which in recent years has become a font of brilliantly off-the-wall TV spots. In the first, titled "Shakespearean Gecko," a blooming romance between a pair of lizards is thwarted when the piece of ceiling tile they're standing on cracks, sending them tumbling to their deaths. (The people who witness the tragedy are crestfallen and vow to use only Shera brand ceiling board in the future.) The second spot, for Sylvania light bulbs, builds on the idea that ghosts are scary only when it's dark, while in bright light they become rather silly. A family enjoys a daytime picnic while calmly observing the absurd, unscary ghosts who try to haunt them (one of which turns out to be not a ghost at all—just a transvestite).
—A Silver-winning interactive campaign designed to reduce drunken driving in Frankfurt. Called "The Piss-Screen," it placed monitors on the walls above urinals in bars. By aiming their pee from side to side, men could steer a car in a video driving game. The game would ultimately demonstrate that the pee-er was unfit to be driving, as he couldn't even manage to accurately aim his stream of urine. After the inevitable crash, the screen would ask, "Too pissed to drive?"
One Gold-winning print campaign caught my attention, though possibly not in the manner intended. Designed for MTV in Argentina, it consists of three separate ads, each of which shows a pair of faces side by side. On the right sides are instantly recognizable celebrities: Britney Spears, Ricky Martin, and Marilyn Manson. They need no identification, and receive none. The faces on the left, on the other hand, were not familiar to me. And this turned out to be the gag. Small text at the bottom of the ads reads "on the left, Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone" (or "Alexander Fleming, discoverer of penicillin" or "Marie Curie, first female recipient of the Nobel Prize"), followed by a simple MTV logo. The suggestion being that MTV has an amazing ability to drive our culture's interests—which I found less an advertisement for MTV and more a deeply depressing truth.
My least favorite ad of the entire show (it still won a Gold, though only for its cinematography) was a Louis Vuitton spot titled "A Journey." It's an aimless, endless wank: We see beautiful, expensively produced images of someone playing cello on an empty mountaintop, of a naked woman staring out a window at a nighttime cityscape, of a man painting watercolors by the side of a dusty, desolate road. The theme seems to be the wonder of travel, but let me tell you this right now: If I encounter you in some soul-stirring, far-off locale and you're carrying one of those Louis Vuitton bags with the in-your-face logos splattered all over it (polluting my pure experience of the moment with your perverted display of ostentatious "luxury"), well ... I may be forced on principle to kick you in the shins.
A final note on the weekend: No doubt as a result of ad execs' constant, grasping quest for only the newest and the hippest, the festival was held at the spanking new Gansevoort South Hotel here in South Beach. So new was this hotel that, when I attempted to find the rooftop bar, I found myself on an unfinished penthouse floor that was all concrete, bare drywall, and clumps of electrical wires. Also, they seemed to be working out the kinks in the maintenance routine for the large aquarium in the lobby. When I first arrived, it was brightly lit and filled with exotic marine life (including some sharks). By the next day the lights had gone out, and I noticed several of the creatures behaving erratically—with some sinking slowly to rest on the sandy bottom of the tank. By the time I caught my cab for the airport, there were thick velvet curtains concealing the whole thing from view. A moment of silence for those very trendy, possibly dead fish.
Discounted accommodations were provided by the Clios.