Last night, near the end of the Clio Awards ceremony, a classic commercial was inducted into the Clio Hall of Fame. Which timeless spot received this honor? The Budweiser "Whassup?" ad, in which several friends all shout "Whassup?" at each other (between sips of Bud). There were three notable aspects to this development:
1) The phrase, and the spot, have dropped out of the cultural landscape for long enough that when the ad was played on the screen over the stage, I was not—to my great surprise—annoyed. It seems that massive overexposure + time = grudging acceptance.
2) When the Hall of Fame induction was announced, the middle-aged white guy who'd been sitting next to me all night, making pleasant small talk, suddenly stood up and strode to the stage to accept his Clio statue. Turns out he'd been the ad exec who discovered the original, three-minute "Whassup?" short playing at a film festival and had decided it would make a great Bud commercial. He walked back to his seat beaming, staring at the inscription on the statue's base. I'm not sure I've ever seen someone look so proud.
3) The award presenter, in introducing the spot and marveling at its success, claimed there was "no logic at all to it." This betrayed a shocking lack of insight into advertising's inner workings.
If the presenter had attended the workshop held here on Monday afternoon—the one on the "12 Master Formats of Advertising"—he would have realized that "Whassup?" is a textbook example of format No. 10: "Associated User Imagery." In ads like this, the idea is to show us the sort of person who purportedly uses the product. Generally, this means groups of people who are attractive, cool, smart, funny, or all of the above.
These 12 master formats were determined by a man named Donald Gunn, who has been issuing annual reports on the world of advertising for the last several years. Gunn says he watched thousands of commercials to devise his categories. Once you've memorized them, all the mystery of subtle advertising technique seems to disappear and leave behind these 12 simple templates. Nearly every ad you see on television neatly conforms to one of the formats. (By the way, Malcolm Gladwell, writing in Slate, once claimed that there are exactly 15 types of newspaper stories—plane crash, international diplomatic incident, heartwarming domestic-pet story, etc.—so it's not just advertising that's formulaic.)
As monsoonal rains soaked South Beach last night, the Clio presenters inside the theater proclaimed that "reports of the death of the television commercial are premature" (this won a huge round of applause) and that, of the countless commercials produced last year (including 25,000 in North America alone) the ones being recognized here by Clio were the most original, the most creative, the most paradigm-shifting. And yet still the 12 master formats were in evidence at every turn.
A selective look at some of last night's winners:
"Big Ad," for Carlton Draught beer, won a Silver. This spot got a lot of viral love last year, as it was e-mailed around the world. It features a cast of thousands frolicking about in an expensive location, chanting, "It's a big ad!" to the tune of that epic music you always hear during movie trailers. One ad exec I talked to felt this spot was too much of an "inside joke" for the ad community, poking fun at all the big-budget shoots that get tacked onto empty concepts. I think the ad is pretty funny. (Oh, yes, it's also master format No. 12: "Parody.")
This year also marked a major breakout for ads from Thailand. Everyone here raved about the "Thai sense of humor" (though no one could pinpoint its hallmarks, or explain what it was about Thai culture that had created such a fertile advertising climate). Four ads for Smooth E Baby Face Foam (an anti-acne face cleaner) were the undisputed crowd favorites last night, though they won only Silver.
The series of ads, called "The Love Story," aired on successive nights on Thai primetime TV. They recount the saga of an ugly-duckling girl, her best friend, and her quest to find a soul mate. The ads are irreverent, hilarious, and incredibly heartwarming. The normally cynical ad folks here burst into an ovation when the story ended. Perhaps the funniest thing about the ads is how annoyed the characters get when they have to interrupt the story to shill for the face foam. It's self-hating advertising! (It's also master format No. 5: "Exemplary Story." The girl uses face foam, becomes prettier, and lives happily ever after.)
Midway through the ceremony, the excitement ground to a halt as the radio awards were announced. No one here seems to care a lick about radio ads. Throughout the festival, the short-listed ads were available at an iPod station in the convention center, yet I saw only one other person (besides me) bother to listen to them. My theory: Radio spots afford ad executives no excuse to travel to exotic locales, spend lots of money, and cast attractive young models (since it doesn't matter what radio actors look like), so the task holds little interest.
The award presenter offered an excellent alternative theory: Radio ads are really difficult to excel at. "Making a radio ad," he said, "is like trying to hide on a squash court. There are no visuals you can fall back on, and you're at your most exposed as a writer." The big radio winner last night? Bud Light's "Real Men of Genius" campaign (which has been running since 1999 and also has a television component). This salute to everyday heroes (such as "Mr. Jean Shorts Wearer," "Mr. 80 SPF Sunblock Wearer," and "Mr. Backyard Bug Zapper Inventor") was termed a "radio juggernaut" by the presenter, who also wondered if it might be "the most successful radio campaign in history."
A spot called "Balls," for the Sony BRAVIA television set, won Gold. The spot shows what appear to be thousands of superballs bounding down a San Francisco street. The colorful balls are meant to dramatize the sharp colors captured by the TV set. I felt the ad dragged on a little too long, given that it was a single, simple idea. Then I learned that there were no computer effects involved. They actually unleashed 250,000 superballs on San Francisco and filmed the result. This made me far more impressed.
The ad folks, predictably, loved this spot, because its execution involved lots of expense and complication. "Can you imagine how many windows they broke?" murmured a guy in the next row at the awards ceremony. He could not conceal his envious smile. "What an outrageous shoot!" agreed the guy next to him. "They're still picking up those balls!" (And those balls represent master format No. 9: "Exaggerated graphic effect demonstrates the product benefit.")
At last we came to the night's finale: The Grand Clio for television advertising. This year, for the third year in a row, the big enchilada went to a spot for Honda. In 2004, it was for the amazing "Cog," in which a Honda Accord was deconstructed and then transformed into a Rube Goldberg contraption. ("Ad Report Card" previously reviewed this ad.) In 2005, it was for "Grrr," an animated ad about how we once hated diesel engines, but how they're much quieter and less annoying now. (I cannot for the life of me understand what makes this ad special. It's just some animation with a cloying theme song. Judge for yourself by clicking here and then clicking on "See the film.")
This year, the Grand Clio went to a suite of three British-made Honda ads: "Dreams"; "Choir"; and "Impossible Dreams." I don't see the fuss about "Dreams," in which some Japanese people have giant balloons growing out of their ears. "Choir" is a lot like "Cog," in that it blows you away with its technical proficiency. The spot shows a choir recreating all the sounds a Honda makes—from an accelerating engine right down to the whine of the windshield wipers. It's an ingenious idea, carried off perfectly.
"Impossible Dreams" is the epic of the three, and is set to the similarly titled tune from Man of La Mancha. It shows us an unassuming fellow who leaves his house to get on a Honda mini-bike, which then (through clever editing) turns into a scooter, and then an ATV, and later a Honda convertible and a Honda power boat. As the commercial closes, the man is rising to the heavens in a giant Honda hot air balloon.
What's amazing about this spot is that it's entertaining, smart, and a little bit funny, without actually saying a single cogent thing about the Honda brand. I've always felt Honda had the blandest brand image of any carmaker. They're known for designing reliable autos, but I can't think of any emotional attributes we connect with Honda. In some ways, this is a great selling point: People often want their cars to say nothing about them. (Think of the new VW Passat ads that tout the car's "low ego emissions" and compare it to other cars that scream "I make more money than you" or "Daddy didn't love me.")
Perhaps the most shocking thing of all about the Grand Clio winner? I can't seem to fit it into any of the 12 master formats. That has to be a point in its favor.