Recently, my funny, prolific, and prescient MediaPost colleague Bob Garfield, the author of the award-winning book “The Chaos Scenario,” publicly declined to do a column listing the best-and-worst commercials of the year. He could not do it, he semi-joked, because he hadn’t seen any ads.
Bob is right about the ongoing wreckage in the ad biz, of course, and the digital tumult that continues to destroy (I mean revolutionize!) the media industry as we know it.
But c’mon -- there are also anomalies, in that some people actually seek out ads online, or at least, can’t avoid them. Take the Super Bowl, the network dinosaur that garnered its largest audience ever last year, while ad prices continue to escalate. Since the airing of Apple’s “1984” the audience has been trained to pay attention to, and judge, Super Bowl commercials, expecting miracles. They are often disappointed. Still, if viewers happened to be trapped in a closet, choking on pretzels, or otherwise coping with kid-based distractions during the ad pods, they tended to seek them out later online.
Clearly, those old-school TV events tend to be incubators for big ad productions and new social media behavior; and YouTube and other online outlets have given the hoary TV spot -- sometimes in extra-long form -- a second life.
Obviously, the number of views on You Tube is staggering -- even for spots not run during big-tent events. The spot I wrote about last week, for example, Samsung’s “The Next Best Thing is Here,” (which, admittedly ran during the Summer Olympics broadcast) with the aggressively clever pro-Android, anti-Apple, message, has attracted over 16 million views so far, even though it’s not a major cinematic blockbuster with a big budget.
Or maybe it’s not so much a second life as an after life: zombie ads of the undead. Regardless, there’s a giant body of work out there, and sometimes people even seek out, send to friends, and study ads online.
So let’s talk best. My contenders seem to spring from one agency, Wieden + Kennedy, which is widely considered to be the top creative shop in the world, having made products like Old Spice part of the cultural vernacular.
Clearly, the agency is on an inspirational bent. I love the fat kid running for Nike. As knowing counter-programming for the broadcast of the London Olympics, which is full of beautiful bodies shown at the height of their superpowers, it features an out-of-shape, 200-pound twelve-year-old boy having trouble running at all.
Exploitative? No. The kid is in on it, and bravely opens up. He’s a metaphor for what’s buried and awkward inside us all -- the stuff that makes us want to stop, or never start, trying. The spot uses an empty road and the sound of unsure footsteps to preach about greatness. We see the kid from a distance, way down the road. As he approaches the camera, huffing and puffing, the announcer says greatness is “not some rare DNA strand,” or just for prodigies or superstars. “We are all capable of it. All of us.”
Or at least we are all capable of facing ourselves and our fears, and making that first, sweaty step. The spot contains all the right combinations of surprising, inclusive, and inspiring, without being cloying.
I give top honors, however, to Chrysler, for its beautiful two-minute “Halftime in America,” the sleeper that rocked the Super Bowl. It took guts to stick with the tone of massive inspiration when selling a bailed-out, Detroit-based, now partially foreign-owned car company. An Italian company selling cowboy power -- it redefines the spaghetti Western.
With its gorgeous, heavily black-and-white graphics, and its requiem for the USA rasped by Clint Eastwood, the ad still gives me chills.
The need for inspiration comes straight from the zeitgeist, and the agency has a way of allowing brands to speak for America, infusing hope, without being ridiculously heavy-handed and pretentious. Indeed, W&K seems to have taken on the mantle of a modern-day WPA. It also did a project for Levi’s, documenting the revival of a dead industrial town in Pennsylvania brought back to life by latter-day farmers, artists, and artisans.
But back to “Halftime.” In the opening, Clint is shown wandering alone in a dark alley, Dirty Harry-style, but ends up in the light, the same trajectory that the car company predicts the country, and our economy, will take. Clint spouts some poetry about our power, including, “The world’s gonna hear the roar of our engines,” an entirely Whitmanesque line. The spot is anthemic and one for the ages: right up there with “1984.”
But, given that nothing is black and white (except this spot), I do have at least one qualm about “Halftime": It could easily have doubled as a spot for Obama. (O was almost halfway through the two terms of his presidency -- his "halftime" -- after all.)
And if I may indulge in some armchair analysis, after it ran, Eastwood perhaps became frustrated with his inadvertent support for a “Morning Again for Obama” message. Seeking to reestablish his conservative bonafides as a “read my lips” kinda guy, he agreed to appear at the Republican National Convention. There, sans scriptwriters but full of misdirected animus, he went off the rails, performing his deeply embarrassing conversation with the empty chair standing in for the President. It was so nutty that he totally overshadowed whatever strategy the party had planned that night for the convention. In the end, Mr. E probably lost Romney a few votes.
Directly, or indirectly, any spot that has that much power over public discourse deserves an award. Are you feeling lucky, Chrysler?
In the next post, I will unveil my vote for “worst” ad, which also comes from Weiden + Kennedy. (A little meta concept there!)
So have at it. The process has never been as big or democratic: not only has ad criticism not gone away -- but with new media, everybody’s a critic.