The year in advertising

Spilled milk, hoax devices, and free furniture: The good and the bad

Email|Print| Text size + By Brian Steinberg
Globe Correspondent / December 30, 2007

The typical milk commercial has vivid pictures of the frothy drink, talks about health benefits, and maybe even features a cow. These days, typical won't do.

So, when the Boston office of ad agency VIA Group landed an assignment to promote milk distributed by HP Hood LLC of Lynnfield, they went with something different: an ad that shows a family bursting into tears when someone spills a glass of milk - a play on the old adage.

In 2007, some advertisers were abandoning old standbys, like talking about price ("just $49.99!") or product attributes ("cleaner, fresher, whiter!"). Instead, they tried to surprise, entertain, and strike an emotional chord with consumers, who are inundated by ads.

With this in mind, we sifted through ads from Boston-related agencies and marketers and came up with five advertising wonders and five blunders (to be sure, our picks are subjective). Also included are a few honorable mentions that didn't quite make the cut.


A Swing and . . . a Hit!
What: Jordan's Furniture told customers who bought certain items at its stores between March 7 and April 16 the furniture would be free if the Red Sox won the World Series, which they did. TV ads and flashing signs at Jordan's locations trumpeted a "monster" deal. Nearly 30,000 people took the bet. Jordan's even ran ads around the time of the Series featuring CEO Eliot Tatelman reminding eligible customers about the promotion.

Why: Sometimes, a little P.T. Barnum trumps a multimillion-dollar ad budget. The sale lasted only a few weeks, but Jordan's became part of the hoopla all season long.

A Caffeine Jolt
What: Last year, Hill Holliday, based in Boston, unveiled ads for Dunkin' Donuts portraying the chain as an unpretentious place where a simple guy could get a cup of Joe - an obvious smack at Starbucks. This year, the chain kept up the battle, with spots showing celebrities including Naomi Campbell and Kiss guitarist Ace Frehley experiencing difficulty trying to get through the routine of "regular everyday folks" who get to sample a new drink or breakfast offering.

Why: Citing more competition, Starbucks in November abandoned a previous stance of using limited mainstream advertising and committed to a national TV campaign - a sign it needs to get its message out more strongly.

Web Lessons
What: A humorous, minutes-long video from Boston's MMB tells of young Billy Cranston, who buys out a neighbor's lemonade stand at a tender age and spells out stock-ticker symbols with building blocks. Cranston's business rise is meteoric until it is blocked by someone who took an executive education course at Harvard Business School.

Why: So many advertisers choose to repurpose 30-second TV ads on their websites or run video filled with lots of facts but little panache. But MMB purposely created something that would give people more information about the school, but also do it in a really creative way.

Read Any Good Books Lately?
In homage to Nick Hornby's "High Fidelity," a woman is frustrated by the hundreds of record albums that litter the apartment she shares with her boyfriend. When she leaves one day, he appears to drown his sorrows by listening to each record one by one - but is really digitally transferring his entire collection, thanks to RadioShack. When the woman returns, the apartment is clean.

Why: RadioShack ads usually have focused on the latest gizmo for sale, but rarely discuss how RadioShack can make things easier. Created by Boston's Arnold, this ad lends emotional heft to a retailer that must fight with many rivals.

Targeted Travel
A male couple tearfully parts at the airport. When Orbitz tells one of the pair his plane is delayed, the two have nothing left to say in this ad created by Mullen.

Why: It's not easy to target a specific demographic without getting cute or playing on stereotypes. This ad aired on Bravo's "Project Runway" and on local TV in New York and San Francisco and uses nearly the same script as an Orbitz ad featuring a heterosexual couple.


Scare Tactic
In a promotion gone painfully awry for Time Warner's Cartoon Network, battery-powered light screens displaying a character from the show "Aqua Teen Hunger Force" were found affixed to an I-93 ramp near Sullivan Square in Charlestown and elsewhere and were mistaken for bombs.

Why: Some advertisers are turning to buzz-generating stunts to attract notice. But what is intended to stoke buzz can also spark panic if interpreted incorrectly.

Ad Creep
Where can you turn these days to get away from advertising? Very few places, as it turns out. During broadcasts of the Red Sox's World Series games on Fox, Taco Bell's promotion that gave viewers a free taco for every stolen base felt like it became part of the sportscast. Meanwhile, the small city of Melrose unveiled a plan to let ad signs appear on police and fire vehicles. Can you imagine a cop saying, "This arrest is brought to you by. . ."?

Why: For every new way to insert an ad into daily life, there is another consumer who turns a deaf ear or blind eye.

Positively Madison Avenue
Bob Dylan makes a striking appearance by driving an Escalade in an ad for Cadillac and XM Satellite Radio (which plays a Dylan-hosted program).

Why: Creative executives at Boston's Modernista did what they could to make sure Cadillac and XM got their share of promotion, but Dylan steals the show.

As Seen on the Web
Arnold missed with an ad for New York McDonald's franchisees that features low-fi video footage (which first appeared on YouTube) of two guys rapping "McNuggets! McNuggets!" Small print tells viewers the film is "McUser-generated content."

Why: Marketers already complain that taking TV ads and playing them online is a mistake, so why is it OK to take Web footage and put it on TV, where viewers expect to see high-quality video?

Flawed Heroes
Rather than read a book, give a wedding toast, or offer safety instructions, a teacher, wedding guest, and flight attendant all creepily recount how they got cool-but-affordable clothes and accessories at TJ Maxx in a series of ads from Mullen, including a holiday spot where a woman seems to be videotaping her husband and child opening gifts, but she's really focused on a great new leather briefcase she got from TJ Maxx.

Why: The women in these ads behave so oddly they scare us away rather than draw us in.

Honorable mentions

Funniest Traffic Tieup: A bright-yellow mess of rubber ducks clogs the road in an ad for Tom-Tom from Boathouse of Needham.

Best TV-star Cameo: Peter Griffin from "Family Guy" takes a shot at Jared Fogle, Subway restaurants' popular pitchman, in an MMB ad for the massive feast sandwich from Subway.

Sexiest Car Commercial: Kate Walsh from TV's "Grey's Anatomy" and "Private Practice" drives a Cadillac and asks, "When you turn your car on, does it return the favor?" in this interesting come-on from Modernista.

Brian Steinberg is the television editor of Advertising Age.

(Correction: Because of a reporting error, a story in Sunday's Business & Money section incorrectly stated that Jordan's Furniture used the Mullen advertising agency to create its World Series promotion. Jordan's did not use an agency.)

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