These Are the Year's Best Ads?
A dispatch from the Clio Awards.
A panel addressing "innovation" at yesterday's Clio advertising conference in New York seemed hard-pressed to identify any actual innovation in the world of ads. "I think that's all happening outside of advertising agencies," said Faris Yakob, chief innovation officer at MDC Partners. Mighty bold of the chief innovation officer at an agency to acknowledge there is no innovation going on at agencies.
The panelists were reduced to talking about advances in other fields. Even then, they cited products whose origins seem to instruct us in the importance of adaptation, perseverance, and salesmanship—not the lightning strike of brilliant invention. Among the case studies cited: Post-it notes, which began as a failed glue (it wasn't sticky enough, but that turned out to be a plus); Flickr, which began as an element in a multiplayer online game (the game didn't survive, but its photo-sharing tool thrived); and the Snuggie, which came after the Slanket (but managed to outmarket its rival).
The bar was similarly lowered at the Clio Awards ceremony last night. The event had a deflated, downbeat feel. Gone were the swag-stuffed, "Clio"-emblazoned tote bags of yesteryear. And the award choices were less than inspiring. The best-in-show Grand Clio for television ads was bestowed upon a dime-a-dozen spot for an Australian beer called Boag's Draft. In the ad, objects dipped into the "pure waters" of Tasmania emerge in dramatically improved form: a bicycle becomes a motorcycle, a kayak becomes a speedboat, a knife becomes a lightsaber, and so forth. The visual effects here are impressively seamless, and I enjoyed the sly Aussie wit—most evident in the moment when a man dunks his wife, hoping someone better might pop out of the water. But it's hard for me to understand why the judges felt this commercial stood head and shoulders above the rest of this year's entrants.
It's not like this spot presents an innovative new model—something we've never seen before. It's an exaggerated graphic demonstration of a product benefit, conveying to us the extreme wonderfulness of the Tasmanian water used in the beer's brewing process. We've seen this construct in hundreds upon hundreds of previous TV commercials. (Consider this cringe-worthy example, in which Metamucil's promise to induce digestive regularity is alluded to with shots of the spewing geyser Old Faithful.)
I'd be less galled by this selection if not for the other excellent ads the Boag's Draft spot beat out. For instance, Levi's "America" ad—the one with a Walt Whitman poem and some jarring fireworks explosions—received only a bronze for its (superb) editing. It baffles me that the most visually arresting, emotionally rich ad I saw last year could lose out to what is essentially a lame joke tarted up with decent CGI.
The Boag's draft ad wasn't even the funniest of the shortlisted entries. I'd hand that honor to Old Spice's "The Man Your Man Could Smell Like" spot, with its laugh-inducing surprises and charismatic lead performance. Whatever else one thinks of the Old Spice spot, surely it must be acknowledged that the choreographed set-switching—first he's in a shower, then he's on a sailboat, then he's on a horse—was masterfully executed. Yet this spot's lone award was a bronze for direction. Total travesty!
Additional bronzes went to a couple of other ads I'm pretty fond of. Dos Equis' "Most Interesting Man in the World" deserved better, I thought, given the nuanced suaveness the campaign evokes with its careful use of film stock and cleverly conceived visual settings. Likewise, Apple's Mac vs. PC campaign merited more than a bronze, as its conceptual conceit (human personalities standing in for competing companies) is immediately understandable to the viewer and is a powerful means of brand differentiation.
Other ads of interest:
- Gold went to a Luvs diapers viral video, in which the feelings of a first child upon learning he'll be getting a sibling are compared to the feelings of a husband whose wife introduces a second man into their marriage. Funny, but 1) it could and should have been much shorter than two minutes, 2) it draws no connection to the product, and 3) it pretty clearly failed to go viral, since I'd never heard of it before.
- A print ad for Brazil's Terra Travel received gold. The lovely illustration shows us a man in an open field dreaming of a city vacation, while a man in the city craves a rural retreat. The idea is captured with visual succinctness (each man's reality serves as the other man's dream—thought bubbles linking the two), and I think the tagline gets right at the heart of travel's appeal: "Routine sucks."
- Silver went to a Tampax campaign, titled "Zack Johnson," that features perhaps the most strangely compelling 12 minutes of video in the whole festival. It follows the travails of a 16-year-old boy who, Metamorphosis-style, wakes up one morning with a vagina. The subtle product placement comes into play when he gets his first period. It's a risk to cast a lead actor who is wholly outside the product's target demographic, but here I think it worked, and the teen guy in the role has a low-key charm. I found the story oddly sweet—it restrains itself from making cheap "what if men got periods?" jokes. At least one woman watching the ad in the Clios gallery before the awards show was utterly transfixed.
- Print gold went to a campaign for Billboard that attempts to identify the constituent parts of rock stars' personalities. A large image of Bono is formed pointillistically by mixing tiny images of Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, David Bowie, and Mother Teresa. Marilyn Manson's portrait consists of little photos of Kiss, Ozzy Osbourne, the Cure, and Cher. Awards show host John Michael Higgins suggested a Sarah Palin version might be achieved by blending Ted Nugent, Jefferson Davis, and Linda Lovelace.
Higgins is best known in ad land for a series of DirecTV commercials featuring him, Ed Begley Jr., and a whole lot of improvisation. Higgins appeared in a ton of ads early in his career, and he told me he feels this work honed his acting chops in a way that TV and movies never could have. "It's like acting through the eye of a needle," he said. "Ads are so brutally short that every single gesture, where you put your foot, it all matters. You have to find that emotion instantly, and get it across to the audience in a matter of seconds. Some movie actors need a long runway to get there, but in ads that doesn't work."
Just as Higgins began to sweep me up in his enthusiasm for the art form that is television commercials (an Amherst grad, he referenced both Wordsworth and Joyce in the course of our conversation), he deflated the moment by referring to a spot he once did for Planters peanuts. "Toughest ad I ever worked on. It was one long take, during which I had to catch a peanut in my mouth. Took all day."
Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.