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Turbulent year redefines terms of best, worst


It was a year in which what passed for "normal" suddenly was not: where funny--once the essence of success in advertising--suddenly didn't matter, and once-passe emotion-evoking advertising suddenly found new life.

In short, what was good, bad and truly ugly earlier this year took a sharp turn along the often-treacherous road that is advertising.

Mistakes in advertising aren't easily forgotten. The events of Sept. 11 surely didn't change that, but in 2001 nothing came easy, as finding what connected with us seemed just out of reach.

Still, some things did manage to shine. Since marketers seemed to grapple the hardest with finding the right message after Sept. 11, many ads stuck out for their inappropriateness and may have struck wrong chords with the audience they were trying to reach.

Some of the best and the worst from the post-attack genre:

- Don't burn the flag ... burn the flag bearers: After Sept. 11, scores of advertisers wrapped themselves in the flag or, in some cases, used sound bites from President Bush to help crank up the cash for their own businesses. Here's an idea. Congress should require any advertiser using the flag, national monument or president in an ad to pay a U.S. institution use tax. The money would help pay for a TiVo system for every U.S. household so viewers can skip ads with such gratuitous use of U.S. flags, national monuments and sobering presidential speeches.

- Best post-Sept. 11 ad, period: Has to go to BBDO New York for its "New York Miracle" spot showing famous New Yorkers celebrating the city in unlikely settings, including Barbara Walters auditioning for Broadway and Woody Allen figure skating in Rockefeller Center. It was the sigh of relief--make that the chuckle--the rest of the nation had been waiting for.

- Best post-Sept. 11 ads that didn't rely on the flag: Ads from United Airlines, Southwest Airlines and Morgan Stanley all made a statement without resorting to flag-waving or pronouncements that spending is your patriotic duty. United's emotional spot from Fallon Worldwide, Minneapolis, using employees talking about why they like to fly was refreshingly honest and engaging. Southwest, via agency GSD&M, Austin, Texas, and Morgan Stanley, with a new campaign last month from Leo Burnett USA, both made quiet, non-intrusive points about looking ahead without self-pity.

Overall, much of 2001's best, as usual, came through sports themes and the beer category. Unfortunately, some of the worst did as well:

- Fox Sports Net 1, ESPN 0: ESPN continually trounces Fox Sports Net in just about every category, including, until recently, advertising. But Fox Sports Net's recent irreverent campaign from Cliff Freeman & Partners, New York, for its regional sports reports has gained an edge. Though at times violent, the ads showcasing little-known "sports" in obscure parts of the world pulled no punches.

One spot, called "China," featured the "regional" sport called tree catching, with sportscasters doing play-by-play in the local tongue as a contestant attempts to catch a falling tree. When the tree crushes him, fans applaud the attempt. The tagline? "Sports news for the only region you care about. Yours." So it's not politically correct--we won't tell if you laugh.

- NFL goes scoreless: OK, so we thought at first the use of the Commodores' hopelessly insipid "Easy Like Sunday Morning" as the theme for the new NFL campaign was a joke. Problem was, we kept waiting for the punch line. Using it to illustrate rabid NFL fans' feelings about Sundays makes as much sense as Anne Murray on tour belting out Led Zeppelin tunes.

- Best "Whassup" ad of the year: It didn't include the guys who made Budweiser's "Whassup?" a worldwide phenomenon, but DDB Chicago's adaptation of the "Jersey Guys" stood out. Wonderfully cast, the spots--one showing nervous wise guys blowing the cover on fumbling Feds who had wiretapped a bar--was a highlight. We don't know how much beer it sold, but for extending a campaign thought to have peaked, DDB couldn't have done much better.

- Best non-Whassup beer ad: The underappreciated Miller High Life spots from Wieden & Kennedy subtly poked fun at masculinity by lauding the blue-collar brew with some of the best writing in the business.

Suddenly the Champagne of Beers is cool again.

And, finally:

New spokesman with most potential: If it weren't for the hard sell that Dell Computer seems to demand from all its advertising, its Steven character could be the most annoying spokesman you love to watch since Bud Light's "I love you man" guy. A mix of Eddie Haskell from "Leave It To Beaver" and "Fast Times at Ridgemont High's" Jeff Spicoli character, he's someone we want to hear more from--but without the 800 number, please.

 

Jim Kirk, The Chicago Tribune. January 1, 2002

Copyright © 2002, Chicago Tribune. All rights reserved.

 

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