Attentive Mad Men fans will recall that in the most recent episode, characters from fictional ad agency CGC were lauded for winning a Clio Award. The Clios—a venerable, self-congratulatory arm of the advertising industry—have indeed been doling out statuettes to ad execs since 1960. And though we’re now a half-century on, last night’s ceremony was infused with a retro feel.
This was due in large part to the announcement of new Clio Hall of Fame inductees. Two were ’60s-era Volkswagen ads from DDB—an agency that was thriving back in the Don Draper days and is still going strong. (One early Mad Men episode actually featured Don debating the merits of DDB’s work for VW. Though he expresses mixed feelings, Don acknowledges the skills of DDB’s legendary creative partner Bill Bernbach.) More than one person onstage noted that the acclaimed VW “Snowplow” spot from 1964 could still run today, if you swapped in a contemporary car and updated the cinematography. It asks, “Have you ever wondered how the man who drives the snowplow drives to the snowplow?” as we see a Beetle conquering thigh-deep drifts.
The other feted DDB classic was a VW ad that has become perhaps the most revered print ad of all time, is often credited with revolutionizing the advertising playbook, and is synonymous with the salad days of midcentury Madison Avenue. “Think Small” shows us a tiny VW Beetle amid a huge ocean of empty newsprint. (“It’s a half-page ad with a full-page buy,” complains Mad Men’s incredulous Harry Crane in the scene linked to above.) The humble soft sell, the bold use of white space, and the zagging message at a time when American-made cars were imposing behemoths all signaled something new was in the air. Spare slogans and sprawling white space remain ad world staples to this day.
Though the vintage vibe was strong—and the show was held inside New York’s American Museum of Natural History—last night’s show wasn’t all about looking backward. Top honors for new work included a Grand Clio for the “Three Little Pigs” spot devised as part of a campaign for the British news outlet the Guardian. Recasting the fairy tale as a breaking news event, the ad imagines how the dispute between the little pigs and the wolf might be covered were it to play out in today’s news cycle. The ad nicely demos the many platforms and mediums the Guardian can bring to bear, but I feel the spot lacks an emotional hook, and fails to differentiate the Guardian from its direct competitors. The ad simply marches through the various forms of output—blogs, videos, special reports—we now expect our major media outlets to produce.
Though it only received silver, Coca-Cola’s “Security Cameras” spot would have won a Grand Clio from me if I’d been a judge. This heartwarming ad was developed by Coke’s Latin America marketing team and aired in the United States during this year’s Super Bowl. It transforms the typically depressing medium of security camera footage into a series of upbeat, happy moments. We see cameras capturing acts of kindness, charity, and courage on behalf of others. The ad’s in keeping with Coke’s clearly defined global brand: youthful, internationally inflected optimism. (By the way, a few of the scenes are apparently re-created, but are based on actual footage. The others are the original security clips.)
And I thought Old Milwaukee’s “Enjoy the Ride” spot was robbed, meriting only a bronze in the eyes of Clio judges. This ad is part of a flurry of bizarre, quasi-volunteer work that comedian Will Ferrell and his site Funny or Die have been doing on behalf of the lowbrow beer brand. I’m not exactly clear on the image-shaping involved here—how does frenching a woman on a public bus as Chinese music blares relate to domestic lager?—but it is without doubt a memorable tableau. And awareness is half the point when it comes to alcohol ads.
One of my favorite recent films is No, a fact-based tale about an ad campaign that helped turn the Chilean public against dictator Augusto Pinochet. At last year’s Clios, I was impressed by a get-out-the-vote campaign in Tunisia, in which a deposed dictator’s portrait was briefly mounted in a public square as a warning that voter apathy could lead to backsliding. These are testament to the societal influence ads can wield.
The best ads I saw last night were also created on behalf of causes, not products. In Puerto Rico, where (according to the award presentation) 60 percent of the population receives some form of government assistance, a beloved salsa song was rewritten to encourage a heartier work ethic. The song’s original lyrics were about lazing around, doing nothing all day. As part of a public service message, the band—salsa royalty El Gran Combo—changed the words to reflect a desire to succeed and be productive. It’s akin to Cypress Hill re-releasing “I Wanna Get High” as “I Wanna Improve Myself and Contribute Positively to Society.”
In response to scary suicide statistics in Korea—it has the top suicide rate among OECD nations for eight years running—Samsung Life Insurance sponsored a campaign to discourage people from jumping off Seoul’s Mapo Bridge, a popular suicide spot. As pedestrians walk across the bridge, perhaps eyeing the cold waters of the Han River below, a series of happy, life-affirming messages lights up along the bridge’s railing. The campaign claims it has reduced the “average suicide rate” on the bridge by 85 percent. “The bridge of death becomes the bridge of life.”
Speaking of work on behalf of no clear product: A Grand Clio was awarded in acknowledgment of the resurrection of rapper Tupac Shakur. At the 2012 Coachella music festival, a Tupac hologram performed onstage alongside the flesh-and-blood Dr. Dre and Snoop.
Though this was an astounding feat in many ways—virtual 2Pac had surprising stage presence!—I was mildly alarmed by the enthusiasm this stunt seemed to engender among ad execs. As best I can tell, they are most excited about the potential to use dead celebrities not just as 2-D product endorsers (that ship sailed when Fred Astaire danced with a Dirt Devil) but as 3-D spokespeople.