Media Circus

The First Annual Counter-Clio (Schmio?) Awards give the worst TV ads their day in the sun

Topics: Advertising,

it’s an “ad ad ad world,” Village Voice advertising critic Leslie Savan has observed, and that never felt more true than Tuesday night in New York. While the 38th annual Clio Awards for radio and print ads were being given away uptown (the television Clios were awarded Wednesday night), a gaggle of academics and cultural critics were gleefully mocking that celebration at a first-annual downtown ceremony called the Counter-Clios. There was a merry whiff of mischief in the air — a feeling that wasn’t dampened by the fact that many of the participants had already spent the cocktail hour at a pre-award bash at Fez, a downtown nightclub.

“We’re here to promote the idea that contempt, rather than celebration, is the proper response to advertising and the individuals that make it possible,” said Neil Postman, the evening’s master of ceremonies. Postman, the author of “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” said he hoped the awards themselves would be amusing, and not merely a groaning seminar on political correctness. For the most part, they were. Postman himself predicted a future in which an actor playing Jesus would replace Orson Welles as a wine pitch man: “When I transformed water into wine at Canaan,” Postman’s Jesus belches, “this is what I had in mind.”

Warming to his subject, Postman said that advertising is “America’s version of the morality play — and its most popular form of literature. It teaches us that all problems are solvable, and solvable fast, through machinery or chemistry.” He called ads a form of “cultural rape” and “a dangerous appeal to our lust for simplicity.” Apparently there’s nothing simple about mocking the ad world, however. Postman said he’d been warned by the Clio people that using the name “Counter-Clios” might land his ceremony in hot legal water. He posited the not-so-winsome name “Schmio’s” instead, and it almost seemed to stick.

The evening’s awards were handed out after a screening of Harold Boihem’s much-praised new film “The Ad and the Ego,” a video collage of TV ad clips and academic talking heads that purports to lay bare the way advertising shapes our perception of the world. The film proved to be a bit of mess, however — a distracting and incoherent jumble of fast cuts and sound bites that tried to co-opt advertising’s own MTV rhythms. Perversely, it made you long for the coherence and relaxed humor of the best advertisements. Sitting through “The Ad and the Ego,” I probably wasn’t alone in envying Times columnist Frank Rich, who snuck into his seat — which was marked with a large sign labeled “Frank Rich” — sometime toward the end.

Without further ado, here’s an annotated list of the evening’s winners:

“The Aldous Huxley Award” for the most disarming vision of totalitarianism: Mark Crispin Miller, the author of “Boxed In: The Culture of TV,” gave this award to Time Warner for a series of ads that demonstrated what Miller called “sheer, unmitigated cultural gall.” Set to Cole Porter’s song “You Do Something to Me,” the spots showed images of shiny happy people who seemed unable to distinguish illusion from reality — including one elderly couple who claimed they were inspired to get married after glimpsing Alfred Eisenstaedt’s famous photo of a sailor kissing a nurse on V-J Day in Times Square. The message from Time Warner, Miller said, is “You can’t get away from us … we’re inside you.” It’s a message, he concluded, “that was once a premise of horror movies.”

“The Jimmy the Greek Big Black Buck Award” for the most demeaning targeted marketing campaign: Makani Themba, the co-director of a media and policy center called the Praxis Project, singled out three print ads as contending for this award: A Smirnoff ad that showed a black woman gazing directly into her boyfriend’s crotch; a Colt .45 ad featuring a woman posed as if begging for some doggie-style bonking; and a Sir Bonni Miles clothing ad with a man and woman wearing blackface and chains. The prize went to Sir Bonni Miles. Themba said she’d be sending them “a free breakfast at Denny’s and a complimentary copy of ‘Mandingo.’”

“The History is Bunk Award”: Matt Weiland, the managing editor of the Baffler and an editor at the New Press, handed out this award to what was probably the most hilariously disgusting ad of the evening. It went to a Pizza Hut spot called “Strike Break,” which featured men walking a picket line in cold weather. Suddenly, a Pizza Hut truck scoots up and free slices are doled out to everyone. “Hey, who sent this?” one striker asks. They look up, see their boss grinning down from a window, and smile back at him. Ah, social harmony via mozzarella!

“The Hype-ocrisy Award”: Writer and American University Professor Pat Aufderheide gave this one to Johnson & Johnson, for glorifying its “cultural mission” and then pulling its ads from “Ellen’s” coming-out episode. “A spine,” Aufderheide said, “is a terrible thing to waste.”

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“The Toxic Sludge is Good for You Award” for the advertising best disguised as journalism: John Stauber, the editor of the quarterly publication PR Watch, gave this award to the nation’s TV news directors for accepting advertiser-generated “news” clips and running them without attribution. (He showed footage on one such clip, generated by a suntan lotion company.) “People are tuning out commercials, so corporations are turning to these things, which are provided free to newsrooms,” Stauber said. Stauber’s presentation felt like a bit of an infomercial itself. He couldn’t stop himself from waving a copy of his new book, from which his award borrowed its title.

“The Last Tango on Madison Avenue Award” for the most deviant use of a dairy product: Media critic and filmmaker Jean Kilbourne nominated two overly sexualized ice cream commercials for this award, after happily noting the way that those ever-present milk mustache ads have “mainstreamed the cum shot.” Her winner was a Brazilian ad that featured a swarm of spoons wriggling like sperm toward a large bowl of strawberry ice cream. The solitary spoon to penetrate emitted a gratified “aaah.”

“The Oh, What a Tangled Web (site) You Weave Award” for the Web site that most craftily ensnares children: This prize — presented by three directors of the Children’s Policy portion of the Center for Media Education — went to the McDonald’s and Budweiser sites. The McDonald’s site encourages kids to “write to Ronald … tell Ronald about yourself,” a consumer questionnaire cannily disguised as a game. The Budweiser site allows kids to download a screensaver of those frogs who croak out “bud-wei-ser.”

“Excellence in Blaxploitation”: Leslie Savan gave this award to Miller Lite, for one of its faux-sophomoric commercials created by “Dick,” their aw-shucks ad guy who’s represented in the ads by what looks like his 1970s high school yearbook photo. The ad Savan cited shows Dick’s “best friend” Jimmy, a black man, “test-driving” the beer. To what sounds like the soundtrack from “Shaft,” the stupidly grinning Jimmy — who’s wearing a crash helmet and looking a bit like B.D. from “Doonesbury” — jumps through windows and off the roofs of buildings and slides through mud.

Savan’s critique of this ad, to these ears, sounded a little overheated. Her point was that the ad tries to flatter you with its multiple layers of irony — but that if you strip away the irony and context you’re merely left with what she calls a “postmodern minstrel show,” an updated “Amos ‘n’ Andy.” If the commercial had been made 20 years ago, Savan continued, the spot would be clearly offensive. There are two replies to this. One is that context actually does mean a lot. The other is that it’s not 20 years ago. The black man (“Jimmy”) in the Miller Lite commercial seemed, to this viewer, to be in on the joke — we were laughing with him, not at him. Indeed, you could argue that the Miller ad’s relaxed, let’s-not-take-this-race-stuff-too-seriously tone represents an improvement over the sanctimonious rectitude that usually prevails on TV.

“The More Things Change the More You Ensure Things Stay the Same Award”: Two Ms. magazine editors — Marcia Ann Gillespie and Barbara Findlen — showed a selection of then-and-now ads culled from the magazine’s “No Comment” section. The most memorable: An ad for a camera that urged readers to “Take Your Mother-in-Law Out and Shoot Her.”

“Special Lifetime Achievement Award”: Neil Postman introduced the presenter of this award — Charles Kernaghan, director of the National Labor Committee — as “the man who made Kathy Lee Gifford cry.” Kernaghan gave his award to Nike, for what he called “brilliant hypocrisy and stunning greed.” He showed a Nike ad that encouraged women to “Just Do It” — that is, to grab sports (and thus their lives) back from men. The problem, Kernaghan said, is that Nike is corporately committed to keeping women down in places like Vietnam, Indonesia and Pakistan, where more than 200,000 women work 10-hour shifts for as little as 20 cents an hour and are often treated inhumanely by their supervisors. It would take a typical worker in a Nike plant 33 years, Kernaghan said, to earn what Nike’s CEO earns on a single night while sleeping.

The show was over. Uptown at the Clio Awards at Town Hall — where the admission fee was a cool $225 — the winners and losers were decamping to haute restaurants like Le Cirque 2000. Downtown, many of the Counter-Clio participants fled to a local Greenwich Village pub instead. No one, it’s safe to say, downed any Miller Lite.

Dwight Garner is Salon's book review editor.

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