And the Greatest Ad of the Year Is …

The ad world celebrates itself at the Clios.

Joan Rivers hosts the Clio Awards.
Joan Rivers hosts the Clios on Tuesday night

Photograph by Steve Mack/WireImage.

At last night’s Clio Awards—the ad world’s annual fete—host Joan Rivers immediately won my affection when she opened with a grisly joke about an ad campaign I’ve come to despise. “I want to welcome most of you here tonight,” Rivers croaked to the assembled crowd of advertising executives. “But not the people responsible for the E*Trade Baby. You can go fuck yourselves. Where is Casey Anthony when you need her?”

Sadly, the big Clio winners this year exhibited none of the sly mischief and humor that Rivers brought to her hosting duties. (Or, for that matter, to her 1970s gig as a spokeswoman for radial tires: She showed us a clip of an old, Clio-winning B.F. Goodrich ad in which she managed to squeeze off killer punch lines amid stern warnings about uneven tread wear.) When it came time to hand out the 2012 awards, earnest do-goodery won the day.

A Grand Clio—the show’s highest honor—went to Chipotle’s “Back to the Start” ad, in which we see an animated farmer industrialize his operations, suffer a crisis of conscience, and then revert to older, simpler ways. The spot is beautifully made, backed by an excellent Willie Nelson cover of the Coldplay song “The Scientist.” It highlights Chipotle’s admirable effort to support sustainable agriculture. But watching those cute animated pigs sort of tamped my pork cravings. An ad exec behind the spot admitted as much as he accepted his statuette, labeling this a victory more about politics than commerce. “The industrial ag guys got pretty angry about this ad,” he told us from the stage. “I’m not sure if it’ll sell any burritos. But if it pisses those guys off it’s a step in the right direction.”

Politics also powered another Grand Clio, for “innovative media,” which honored a stunt an ad agency pulled in Tunisia just before the national elections last October. Polling anticipated 55 percent turnout—a disappointing figure, given the fact that Tunisians had recently ousted a longtime dictator. So, in an effort to boost engagement, the agency returned a massive portrait of the deposed dictator to the public spot where it had hung before the revolution. Outraged Tunisians, not realizing this was a prank, rediscovered their political mojo and ripped the portrait down again—this time revealing a surprise message beneath that urged them to vote. Turnout a few days later hit 88 percent. This may or may not have been a direct result of the stunt. But it made me wonder what incensed New Yorkers might achieve if I unfurled a giant portrait of Dick Cheney in Times Square.

In a sign of the advertising times, there was an award for “Facebook-integrated media.” Facebook in fact co-sponsored the Clio Awards this year and is an advertising revenue colossus, so I suppose it can bestow any kind of award it chooses. Interesting, though, that in the week of Facebook’s IPO, when the value of paid Facebook ads is being closely scrutinized, the Clio-winner was a campaign that used Facebook’s free tools to spread its word. In this case, the client was the Troy, Mich., public library. The size of the library’s budget was dependent on a public vote, and it was facing opposition from anti-tax Tea Partiers. So Leo Burnett Detroit publicized a “book burning party” using flyers and signs that pointed folks to a Facebook page. The resulting anger from Trojans who’d been duped into believing that this book burning shindig was for real shifted the conversation away from the burden of taxes and toward the joy of books. The library got its way at the polls. (No one on stage seemed to notice that this campaign was nearly identical in concept to the Tunisian winner. Both used fake fearmongering to punk citizens into civic engagement.) 

Each year the Clios induct some worthy ad from the past into the Clio Hall of Fame (where it will join luminaries such as the Budweiser frogs and the “time to make the doughnuts” guy). In keeping with the theme, this year’s inductee had a vaguely political bent, leveraging environmental concern as a selling point. Honda’s “GRRR” touted a quieter, less sputtery diesel engine by suggesting that animals, plants, and even the sun itself would be pleased with this technological advance. Much like the Chipotle ad, the spot employs cute animation and an acoustic ditty to tell a tale of nature-friendly progress. But here Willie Nelson’s soulful twang has been replaced by the jaunty crooning of Garrison Keillor.

I wasn’t much impressed by “GRRR” when it came out in 2004—the animation is blah, Keillor twee. But this seemed to be a year for honoring positive intentions above all else. As the old advertising landscape continues to crumble, replaced by infant behemoths like Facebook and by confusing multimedia hijinx, perhaps ad creatives are yearning to find social meaning within their work in order to keep themselves tethered amid the chaos.

Rivers was the consummate host, giving it her all from start to finish. “I’ve got a Preparation H commercial coming out in July,” she announced at one point. “I used to have hemorrhoids so big I had to put sunscreen on them.”

But the other two celebrities wedged into the ceremony as recipients of honorary awards—with the sole purpose of upping the evening’s glamour quotient—didn’t give the crowd much to work with, spending a cumulative 45 seconds on stage. Chef and author Anthony Bourdain shared a useful pledge for creatives everywhere: “Whatever we did last week that worked, let’s try not to do it again.”

Photographer Annie Leibovitz said a quick thank you, and then—no doubt referencing her well-publicized financial troubles—glanced at her award with mild disappointment. “I was hoping it would be gold,” she said of the crystal (or maybe lucite) tchotchke she held in her hand, and which she would surely toss into a trash bin within the half-hour. “That way I could have melted it down.

Correction, May 17, 2012: This article originally misspelled Annie Leibovitz’s last name.