Numb and Number: The Best & Worst Ads of '95

Adwise, it's been a rather themeless year. The cruelties of Congress and the cult of cutbacks have not quite lent their scent to mid-'90s advertising as Reaganism did to ads a decade ago. Today's advertising hasn't had to adapt to the political climate -- the political climate has adapted to advertising, where the slogan's always been "Ignore the poor!" A bright thread of viciousness in the commercial weave would be redundant, the corporate-entertainment complex having already instilled enough numbness for the population to accept the human sacrifices to come. (Is anyone surprised that a new study by a Harvard professor has found a close correlation between hours of television watched and a retreat from civic life?) Which isn't to say that this year hasn't seen its share of ad highlights--we have ads that achieve numbness both by playing to our intelligence, humor, and pleasures (the "best" ads of '95) and by playing to our stupidity, greed, and prejudices (the "worst"). Leading in the former category are ESPN's more than two dozen spots promoting SportsCenter--they're 30-second shots of Fernwood Tonight for jocks. The program's anchors and visiting athletes riff as if SportsCenter were the epicenter of sportsdom: To get more game highlights, athletes try to bribe news guys with cars and Rolexes. Spinal Tap's "David St. Hubbins" explains how he composed the SportsCenter theme song. Two anchormen apply their makeup as they discuss "toughness." "You need more rouge," Keith Olbermann tells Dan Patrick, who asks, "Here?" It's the best. Too bad SportsCenter, the ads, are leagues funnier than SportsCenter, the show. A Levi's 501 spot is a popping playground of claymation and Shaggy's "Bombastic," as a guy saves a gal from a fire at the Schmitt Hotel. After reaching the roof, he drops his pants, she shrieks in horror and in lust--then he hooks the jeans around a telephone line so they can take a wild slide to safety. Sitting, very much like a bird on a wire, are a couple of pigeons, who are so startled by this urban Tarzan that they let loose some poop (which is the tip o' trendiness--Grey Poupon made fart jokes this year). Delightful, but then this is the same company that trod on virgin ad turf this year by projecting commercials onto entire sides of buildings to hype its Dockers Authentics. The "projection media" was inspired by the urban adscapes of Blade Runner, says a spokesman, apparently forgetting the futuristic nightmare the movie so eerily evoked. A few ads that look like public service announcements do manage to shake us from slumber. To encourage acceptance of girls' sports (and to sell girls millions more in sneakers), Nike has young girls uttering adult-sounding factoids like: "If you let me play sports, I will be more likely to leave a man who beats me." This is especially refreshing in a year that tallied still more male athletes who beat up women. PFLAG (Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) made more emotional spots. One alternates a scene of gay-bashers killing a man with video clips of Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and Jesse Helms ranting about gays. Robertson: "Homosexuality is an abomination....Many of those people involved with Adolf Hitler were Satanists, many of them were homosexuals. The two things seem to go together." Falwell: "God hates homosexuality." Robertson's people, claiming outrageously that the ads "grossly distort" his views (he apparently hasn't advocated outright murder), threatened to sue the handful of TV stations that PFLAG tried to buy time on; after that, the ads never ran. PFLAG is fighting back with lawyers' letters claiming their free speech has been violated. The ads are rough stuff and probably should have more clearly suggested that words can foster violent attitudes rather than cause specific acts, but it's about time that Pat et al. were PFLAGged down. Maybe you already guessed, but the list of worst ads is a tad longer: Those ads by the National Fluid Milk Processor Board, in which lovely, usually female celebrities appear with overly thick milk mustaches (made with the real thing?) leave some of us feeling like we've just ingested diary products gone bad (particularly the ad with Phoebe and Rachel from Friends, a show that comic-book misanthropes Milk and Cheese must destroy!). At first, I thought the spoilage was due to the supposedly adorable incongruity of glamo stars being "caught" with milk on their face. But more bacteria turned up after millionaire anticholesterol activist Phil Sokoloff bought print ads to point out that "3 glasses of 2% milk have 9 grams of saturated fat, the same amount as 9 strips of cooked bacon!" The message of the mustaches is that milk is "low-fat" and here are the dames to prove it! All Calvin Klein ads--not just the kiddie porn ones, but the Joel West ones and the politically correct unisexual CK One ones--deserve a wedgie, because in all of them Klein sells suffocating self-love and a faux indifference to appearances. The models (and the unseen photographers themselves) are cool and detached, while you're, well, kind of fat and pathetic. Why doesn't Calvin give up this veil of maya and dedicate his life, say, to stamping out sweatshops that, as 48 Hours revealed, crank out his products (as well as other manufacturers'), while his girls and boys preen on? Even slightly more likable versions of the preen are still annoying. Like Soloflex's omnipresent ads with a druggy-sounding female voice-over saying things like, "These could be your arms. These could be your thighs," or, to better induce insecurity, "Flowers are perfect--you, however, could use some work." Meanwhile, Special K has gone from showing sleek, headless female figures to portraying a headed one obsessively eyeing her bod in the mirror. Her smug gawking is enough to turn me into a cereal killer. Yet, one self-regarding self can conquer the world--that is Bill Gates's mission. The $200 million to $300 million campaign he launched to buy a global earthquake of publicity for Windows 95 was the single most depressing ad event of the year--topped only by the sight of Bill Baits hawking his book and the media everywhere biting. MCI took ad uber alles to new heights in '95 and everyone laughed amicably. Gramercy Press, the pretend publishing house of MCI's serial ad campaign, "co-published" an actual book with Random House. In the serial's crescendo spot, the book was honored with a party at the Guggenheim, with real Random House authors doing cameos. No one found this queasy, just charming. For pure obnoxious repetition, Whoopi Goldberg's ads win hands down. No matter how much you flip channels, there's Whoopi, leaning back and laid back, solo in a room somewhere, babbling on about Friends and Family. It's not her fault, it's (again) MCI's. Trying to play celebrities against type, The New York Times featured Rush Limbaugh in an ad late in 1994. Pizza Hut pulled off the same angle with the same blowhard far more cleverly in 1995, dining gluttonously on his demagogic demographics. The guy who'll give dittohead to most any spender may have lost some sponsors this year (the Florida Citrus Commission and Snapple), but the huge, Pepsi-owned Hut gives him all the legitimacy he can eat. Almost matching Rush's clout is U.P.S.'s--yes, drab U.P.S. and its entire ad campaign bragging that it runs "the tightest ship in the shipping business." So tight it hurts: By more than doubling the weight of packages that its workers must lift and by driving them to the extremes of efficiency, U.P.S. has racked up probably the highest injury rate in the shipping business. And by funding some of the mightiest lips in the lobbying business, U.P.S. is, according to the Times, "leading industry's charge to scale back Federal safety regulations that affect not only its own workers but also tens of millions of others in practically every nook of business." (The smaller Federal Express and others are helping out.) The only ad unsophisticated enough to not even try to hide how our creeping numbness is making all this possible comes from U.S.S.B., a satellite-dish company. As a preteen boy plays basketball alone in the driveway, a voice-over mourns over how the kid and Dad used to do things together, used to be close. Somewhere along the way things changed. But as Dad hauls some new booty into the house, that old togetherness starts to return, the V.O. informs us. Yes, it's true--Dad and son are sitting together watching TV! Thanks to the dish, they can catch more TV shows than ever! Back in the U.S.S.B., this kid is sure to grow up believing that whenever he wants more from Dad, all he has to do is mouth the most grating ad line from 1995: "I love you, man."

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