Queen Elizabeth II described 1992 as “an annus horribilis” for her and the royal family. This annus may have not been that horribilis for Madison Avenue, but it came pretty close.
The biggest problem was that most advertising was overtaken by events as the year wore on. The best-laid marketing plans of mice and men — or “Mad Men” with mice — proved no match for a historic presidential race and an enormous financial crisis.
That cut both ways for marketers: overshadowing the best ads, but also drawing attention away from the worst. So half the industry is ending the year cursing its poor timing while the other half is breathing a loud sigh of relief.
Here is a recap of some high and low points of 2008.
BURGER KING After the success of the audacious “Whopper Freakout” campaign, which began in 2007, Burger King Holdings kept the heat on its rivals in the fast-food category, with mixed results. Stunts like selling Flame, a meat-scented body spray for men, were viral-marketing hits; the scent and its Web site (firemeetsdesire.com) made more news than if a vegan like Paul McCartney had turned up in a commercial dressed as the chain’s King character.
But a campaign called “Whopper Virgins” — asking residents of places like Greenland and Romania to take part in taste tests, which pitted the Whopper against the Big Mac — was off-putting; the premise came off like cultural imperialism. Agency for both: Crispin Porter & Bogusky, part of MDC Partners.
COCA-COLA A Super Bowl commercial for the Coca-Cola Classic brand sold by the Coca-Cola Company was a warm and fuzzy winner in the spirit of Coke classics like “Hilltop” and “Mean Joe Greene.” Over the skies of Manhattan, two breakaway balloons from the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade battle for a balloon bottle of Coke, only to lose to that lovable loser, Charlie Brown. Agency: Wieden & Kennedy.
MICROSOFT After years of enduring a mocking campaign from Apple that turned the phrase “I’m a PC” into a punch line, the Microsoft Corporation struck back with ads that surprisingly appropriated the phrase and effectively repurposed it as a rallying cry.
Teaser spots that preceded the Microsoft counterattack, featuring Bill Gates and Jerry Seinfeld as a talkative odd couple, were less successful. But they generated almost as much publicity as if the pair had plighted their troth as an actual couple. Agency: Crispin Porter & Bogusky.
MOTRIN Print and online ads for Motrin pain reliever, sold by a division of Johnson & Johnson , foolishly tried to be funny by comparing babies carried by mothers to fashion accessories. J.& J. wound up wearing tons of Pablum tossed at it by parents offended that their efforts to bond with their babies were being trivialized.
The complaints, many delivered in the form of angry “tweets” on Twitter, eventually seemed like overkill, but they killed the campaign. Agency: Taxi.
BARACK OBAMA One reason that so few people paid attention to advertising this year was a race for the White House filled with milestones, which ended with a precedent-setting president-to-be. One reason for that outcome was the deft use of media, new and traditional, by the Barack Obama campaign as well as by his supporters.
An example of an official ad that broke through was a 30-minute infomercial that the campaign ran on seven broadcast and cable networks on Oct. 29. The commercial, filmed like a documentary, managed to be slick and earnest at the same time, and finished with a live flourish with Mr. Obama at a rally in Florida. Agencies: GMMB, part of the Omnicom Group, and Murphy Putnam Media.
An example of an unofficial Obama ad that succeeded was a video clip, produced by the musician Will.i.am, called “Yes We Can,” which was viewed on YouTube and other video-sharing Web sites more than 20 million times.
Stove Top & Toyota
STOVE TOP Almost 50 years after Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon demonstrated that in Chicago, some like it hot, Kraft Foods turned on the heat there to promote its Stove Top brand of stuffing.
Heated roofs were installed in 10 downtown bus shelters to bring to life the Stove Top promise of a warm feeling when eating a meal with stuffing as a side dish. The clever campaign was emblematic of what is known as experiential marketing, which has brought sounds and smells to bus shelters in addition to hot air. Agencies: Draft FCB, part of the Interpublic Group of Companies; JCDecaux North America, part of JCDecaux; and MediaVest, part of the Starcom MediaVest Group division of the Publicis Groupe.
TOYOTA A commercial to promote zero percent loans offered by Toyota Motor featured a version of a 1983 song, “Saved by Zero,” by the Fixx. The spot seemed innocuous enough, but incessant repetition got on America’s nerves to the point that consumers were threatening to fix Toyota’s wagon, station or otherwise.
There were even groups formed on Facebook to urge Toyota to pull the commercial. Still, all the publicity may have been beneficial at a time when people were thinking more about bailing out carmakers than buying cars; a headline in The Daily News, over an article about the Federal Reserve Board’s decision to slash interest rates, asked, “Are We Saved by Zero?” Agency: Saatchi & Saatchi, part of Publicis.
VOLKSWAGEN A tongue-in-cheek campaign for the Routan minivan sold by Volkswagen of America, part of the German automaker Volkswagen, sought to spoof the image of minivans as mom-mobiles. A celebrity mother, Brooke Shields, was featured as a scold who accuses expectant parents of wanting children just so they can experience the “German engineering” of the Routan.
Like the campaign for Motrin, the Routan campaign seemed tone-deaf. Maybe Americans consider motherhood no laughing matter. Agency: Crispin Porter & Bogusky.