Ad Report Card

Abe Lincoln Does the Nasty

And other great ads honored at the Clio advertising awards.

LAS VEGAS—Barry Manilow was easily the star of this year’s Clios, the ad industry’s annual awards show. The 1970s songsmith received an honorary Clio in recognition of his early work as a jingle composer. “I got my start in the jingle jungle,” said Manilow, accepting his statuette with pride. “It’s where I learned to write a catchy melody.” The 65-year-old—his spiked, frosted hair gleaming in the spotlight—then took a seat at a grand piano and played a rousing medley of his best jingle compositions. As he belted out “Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there” and “I am stuck on Band-Aid,” women of all ages crowded the stage and snapped cell phone photos.

The mood was dampened a moment later when the next presenter, an advertising executive, took the podium. Acknowledging the industry’s severe recent downturn, she murmured into the microphone: “I promise you, he’s not going to write any jingles for the $2,000 we could afford to pay him these days.”

Despite their newly slashed budgets, many Clio attendees tried to put a bright face on things. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Clios, and it was noted that back in 1959—the start of advertising’s golden age—the country was likewise in the midst of a recession (though one imagines Don Draper would weep into his downsized martini were he to witness the current ad biz austerity). Meanwhile, an agency exec tried to buck up the troops with a rallying cry at a panel session. “Advertising is great!” he exclaimed. “It pays for all the content in the world. Everybody else is looking at us to save them!”

Which is true. The foundering music industry’s ray of light is licensing songs for use in commercials. Newspapers seem to think online ads will fund their expensive reporting. Even all-powerful Google, desperate to monetize YouTube (which is costing it a fortune in bandwidth), needs advertising dollars to foot the bill. Yet the ad folks in the audience no doubt wondered: If we’re saving them, who will save us?

Almost none of this year’s winning ads had recessionary themes. But I did note fewer massive, pull-out-all-the-stops, special-effects extravaganzas than I’ve seen in years past. Among the more memorable Clio-winning spots:

An epic, moody, multiminute ad out of Taiwan depicts a woman having an illicit tryst at a motel. As she’s boinking him in the motel bathroom, her lover slips on a bar of soap, hits his head, and (apparently) dies. I at first thought the ad was for a brand of soap, but further research suggests it might be for a Taipei motel. Either way, wow—that’s some serious corporate risk-taking. You have to admire any company willing to juxtapose its product with both graphic adultery and violent accidental death.

Virgin Atlantic celebrates its 25th anniversary with a flashback to 1984. What’s not to love about suspenders, brick cell phones, hot flight attendants, and Frankie Goes to Hollywood? The ad almost manages to make commercial air travel sexy. Meanwhile, United Airlines continues its string of gorgeous animated spots. This year’s crop includes an orchestra of charming sea creatures and a woman business traveler who literally leaves her heart at home. I’ve liked this campaign from the start for the way it blends emotion, narrative, and a lush Gershwin soundtrack.

T-Mobile throws a surprise dance party in Liverpool Street Station, with hundreds of ordinary-looking Londoners suddenly breaking into a choreographed routine. This must have been a treat for the commuters trudging toward their trains, and it’s fun to watch the onlookers getting sucked into the fun. A pet peeve: I wish ads like this wouldn’t hide their product affiliation until the last second. The payoff is always a letdown (sending us off on a sour note), simply because it turns a delightful scene into a sales pitch. Let us know what you’re selling up front, so we can sit back and enjoy the show.

Director Baz Luhrmann—not content with making an overwrought, big-budget film about Australia—directs an overwrought, big-budget ad for Australia’s tourism board. In it, a miserable, overworked woman is visited by a ghostly Aboriginal child who (after tracking red dirt all over her apartment) tells her that the secret to relieving her stress is to “go walkabout.” The woman takes the child’s advice, vacations in Australia, and rediscovers her mojo. Don’t get me wrong: I’m a firm believer in the restorative powers of travel. But did we really need to see another magical minority guiding our white protagonist toward spiritual fulfillment? Let’s retire this trope, shall we?

A trio of ads for Crest toothpaste argues that “you can say anything with a smile.” In each spot, the bearer of bad news (a construction worker about to bulldoze a playground; a groom making his fiancee sign a prenup; a man telling his girlfriend he gave her lice) delivers the bummer announcement with a wide, toothpaste-eating grin. The humor lies in the creepy disconnect between the dudes’ warm smiles and their awful behavior. The Clio judges praised the campaign for cutting straight to the benefit of Crest (a nice smile) while not bothering with the clinical dental details that many toothpaste ads get bogged down in.

A public service ad about human trafficking employs a series of incredibly complex hand shadows. Visually, this ad is amazing. But I felt that the awesomeness of the hand shadows actually distracted me from the message. I had trouble concentrating on the voice-over because I was too busy watching those flying fingers.

Another public service spot—this one for Amnesty International—traces the history of war and human conflict using animated, black-and-white photo illustrations. The tag line: “Everybody is against everybody. Someone has to be for them.” I understand the seriousness of the cause, but gosh if this ad isn’t a concentrated nugget of bleakness. It feels less like an inspiring call to action and more like an accurate treatise on the ineluctably evil nature of mankind.

My personal favorite among this year’s winners: a hilarious, beautifully illustrated ad for the German financial company Bontrust. It shows an animated Abe Lincoln (made from $5 bills) and a demure animated lady (made from some unknown currency) doing the nasty with each other, every which way. Their coupling results in monetary offspring. The punch line: “Make your money multiply with us.” The kicker: An animated Chairman Mao (made from Chinese yuan) looks Abe’s chick up and down. His sly approach suggests he’s contemplating further currency fluctuations, if you will.

Because this is Clio’s 50th anniversary, several classic ads were also honored, including:

  • A 1963 Volkswagen ad that asks, “Have you ever wondered how the man who drives a snow plow drives to the snow plow?”—taking a car that was implicitly about economy and flipping the emphasis onto reliability.
  • I’d Like To Buy the World a Coke,” from 1971. (Actual title: “Hilltop.”) The judges noted that this was one of the first “big” ads, made at a time when most advertising concentrated on product attributes.
  • A 1987 ad for the U.K. newspaper the Guardian—involving a punk and a pile of bricks—in which different points of view add up to a tale that’s far more nuanced than it first appears.

To top it all off, the ceremony included a special red carpet appearance from five of advertising’s most famous brand icons. People dressed in big zip-up costumes portrayed Charlie Tuna, the Nestlé’s Quik bunny, the Kool-Aid Man, and the Michelin Man—aka “Bibendum,” and also the subject of a slightly comic phobia in the William Gibson novel Pattern Recognition.

The fifth brand icon? Morris the Cat. Morris, the 9Lives spokeskitty, attracted more attention than the other four icons combined. This was because he was an actual cat, and totally adorable. (He wore sunglasses!) Still, you had to feel for the poor guy in the Charlie Tuna suit, who was forced to stand right next to the feline superstar while getting completely ignored and no doubt sweating profusely into his furry blue tuna flesh.