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.