Ad Report Card

And the Greatest Ad of the Year Was …

A dispatch from the Clios.

Still courtesy of Volvo Trucks/YouTube

Jean-Claude Van Damme in the most epic of Volvo Truck ads.

Still courtesy of Volvo Trucks/YouTube

At the 55th annual Clio Awards—held Wednesday evening in Manhattan—the ad industry and its invited guests let their masks drop. It felt as though everyone had grown suddenly weary of upholding the ad game’s central façade. So they let it crumble.

“I love advertising because I love lying,” announced Jerry Seinfeld, winner of an honorary Clio for his involvement in various ad campaigns. Seinfeld used his three minutes onstage to assure the assembled creatives that “duping people” is “an excellent use of your energies” and that “buying stupid things is a great way of life.” He referred approvingly to an incident at the 1991 Clio Awards (a famously shambolic clusterscrew) during which hordes of drunken ad execs stormed the stage to steal Clio statuettes that weren’t theirs. He concluded his remarks with a gnomic declaration: “This is all a bunch of nonsense,” he said, immediately before striding offstage and disappearing behind a curtain. Whether he meant the Clios, or advertising in general, or even life itself was not entirely clear.

“OK, he said it,” chimed in emcee Whoopi Goldberg as she reclaimed the microphone. “It’s all a bunch of bullshit.” Goldberg had earlier noted that the putatively Native American actor Iron Eyes Cody (the “crying Indian” of a famous early-1970s anti-pollution commercial) was in fact of 100 percent Italian ancestry. She also complained that slick ads had tricked her into buying a car she now disliked. “I bought a Fiat because of you!” she said accusingly, staring out at the crowd. “Sometimes the advertising is better than the product,” she sighed. “You fucked me up with that Fiat.” It was an echo of another Seinfeld comment—a trademark bit of observational humor, this time dissecting the consumer psyche: “We know that products are going to stink,” he allowed, “but we’re happy in that moment between seeing the commercial and making the purchase.”

Given the multitude of Clio categories, there simply isn’t time to hail all the winners of gold, silver, and bronze. (There’s a Season 4 Mad Men scene in which an ad guy, with his newly won Clio statuette in hand, acknowledges that “they give out 50 a year.”) So the live show focuses on the Grand Clios—the top prizes in each division.

In the Branded Entertainment category, the Grand Clio went to Chipotle’s Scarecrow” campaign. This animated short depicts a fictional factory-farming operation called Crow Foods—a behemoth that injects chickens with strange chemicals and locks cows in dark cages. The titular character, disgusted by these practices, starts his own tiny farm-to-table enterprise, humbly harvesting vegetables that he’s grown himself. It’s beautifully crafted Chipotle propaganda, backed by Fiona Apple’s haunting cover of “Pure Imagination.” But this ad has annoyed me ever since I first saw it. Others voiced similar reactions upon the ad’s release, and a Funny or Die video took the spot to task for its hypocrisy. What’s the beef? The difference between Chipotle and Crow Foods is not quite as stark as the ad pretends. Chipotle is a giant corporation and not, in fact, a tiny farm-to-table enterprise. And Chipotle kills its chickens and cows just as dead as Crow Foods does.

In the Content and Contact category (a category that Whoopi tried and failed to define for the audience—I still don’t really understand its parameters), a Volvo Trucks ad featuring Jean-Claude Van Damme took the Grand Clio. “The Epic Split” documents JCVD’s uncanny flexibility, hamstring strength, and fearlessness, as he performs a split with his feet planted astride two moving trucks. Meanwhile, Volvo Trucks’ precision steering capabilities are on display as we watch the two semis smoothly reversing at high speed, never once imperiling the Muscles From Brussels. At heart this is a classic demo ad, akin to those late-night commercials in which a spokesman displays a chef’s knife slicing through a tomato in midair. But something about the combination of the florid Enya soundtrack, the genuine impressiveness of the stunt, and the supreme beatitude on JCVD’s face makes the ad a joy to behold. According to stats presented at the Clios, the video has more than 100 million views so far. But did it move trucks off the lot? Volvo claims a 31 percent sales boost.

The Grand Clio for direct marketing went to Smart Communications, a telecom outfit in the Philippines, for its campaign to put elementary school textbooks onto SIM cards. Schools in richer districts around the world have begun to lighten their kids’ backpack loads by transferring the contents of heavy, physical textbooks onto tablets and e-readers. But most Filipino families can’t afford those kinds of gadgets. They might possess only an old, non-smart cellphone. The “TXTBKS” initiative lets kids study on those phones, turning lessons into a series of text messages the kid can pull up at any time. Learning becomes much more portable. The whole thing is uplifting.

In fact, if there’s been a recent trend in advertising themes, it’s toward uplift. Marketers noticed the successful viral chops of sites like Upworthy and BuzzFeed—which frequently benefit from folks’ eagerness to share the sort of content that floods their hearts and their tear ducts—and copied that playbook. One example: the “Made of More” campaign from Guinness. The brand was named Clio’s Advertiser of the Year for a series of spots that are heavy on the heartstring-tugging. My favorite is an ad in which a bunch of dudes play wheelchair basketball, competing hard, cheering each other on. At the end of the spot, it’s revealed that only one of these fellows is disabled—the others are strapping into wheelchairs to level the playing field. The group retires to a pub to down Guinness together as the ad fades out. At the time it was released, I recall multiple guys in my pickup basketball game admitting that this ad choked them up. I got a little misty even seeing it again last night on the screen above the Clios stage.

Another attempt at uplift came from Always, which won the Grand Clio for Public Relations with its “Like a Girl” campaign. Some grown-ups of both genders are asked to demonstrate what it looks like to “throw like a girl” or to “fight like a girl.” Much uncoordinated, sissy arm flailing ensues. Then some actual little girls are asked to “run like a girl” and such. They are, of course, way fierce. Always claims its campaign is helping to restore pubescent female confidence, but some have noted that there’s a disconnect here between the ad content and the product—other recent viral commercials for menstrual products aimed at tweens have managed to be empowering while also funny, and have actually referred to menstruation. This criticism aside, Always made a major faux pas at the Clios: Accepting the award, as several female colleagues stood silently behind him, was a man. This guy talked about his four daughters and how proud he was of the ad, but the audience couldn’t help but notice all the ladies onstage. Given the dynamics, it was unseemly. Some shouts went up. They got louder. At last the mic was relinquished to a woman. Whoopi attempted to smooth the waters by telling the man she appreciated his sentiments, and by confessing that she’d used Always “back when I needed to.”

The Lifetime Achievement Clio went to Washington Olivetto, a Brazilian ad exec with a distinguished résumé. Earlier this year the New Yorker called him “an almost Warholian figure.” He’s been responsible for some of Latin America’s best-known ads (none of which I’d seen before). Among them: a 1987 spot for Valisere lingerie titled “First Bra,” which shows a very young girl dealing with her incipient bosom and her first brassiere. This sounds innocuous enough as I describe it. But something about the manner in which the camera lingers on the ad’s semi-dressed juvenile protagonist left the Clios audience a bit unsettled. A kicker in which the girl gets openly ogled as she strolls down the street debuting her new bra only served to pile on the disquietude. At my table in the far back of the room, the term “kiddie porn” was bandied about.

The Clios have a new initiative to honor music used in ads (or, sorry, in “brand collaborations”), so a couple of awards were given to Pharrell and Blondie. Pharrell’s “Happy”—did you know it was written for the Despicable Me 2 soundtrack?—got accolades for its role in the U.N.’s “24 Hours of Happiness” project. Blondie got a sort of lifetime achievement nod. Debbie Harry, dressed in a jacket covered in hashtag symbols, openly begging to sell out, told the assembled marketeers, “A lot of our songs used in ads have been the old stuff, but I want to let you know that we have new music, too.” The music portion of the program concluded with a performance from Aloe Blacc. He sang his hit “The Man” while an ad for Beats by Dre headphones that had featured this same song rolled across the screen. Phrases like “adaptive noise canceling” floated in massive text behind him.

In her final moments, Whoopi asked if anyone from Cadillac was in the room. “I need to understand this McConaughey thing,” she said. It was a classic example of failed brand association. “That was Lincoln,” someone shouted, correcting her.

“Oh shit,” said Whoopi. “My bad. Goodnight!”