Most Memorable Ads of 2006

In the world of advertising and marketing, 2006 was all hanging it out there and accepting the consequences, both positive and not

Phew! Communications in 2006 was not a total disaster. Far from it. If I had to sum it all up in one simple statement, I would say this was The Year of at Least Trying.

Trying to get away from the clichés, the dogma, the focus groups, the bad precedents, and the bad addy-ads; of trying to experiment with format, with media, and with brand "elasticity." Finally, there were signs of consumers being credited with intelligence. Of course there were still lots of bad campaigns; misfired attempts to be "viral," or bad ads linked to bad multimedia campaigns (in my opinion, a boring cereal ad that directs me to a equally boring Web site droning on about the joys of recapturing childhood is just double-annoying, but there you go).

We're clearly at an inflection point. I'm not even a traditional ad-guy and I've been asked to write this, so what does that say? We're all firmly in this together—marketers, designers, clients, agencies, researchers, ethnographers, art directors and writers, all being sniped at, out-thought, and remixed by consumers younger than our own kids. Hard as it is to say, in most cases, they're as good, if not better, at this stuff than we are. Now, together, we must figure out where to go from here. But before we get in to a whole spiral of circle drumming, chest-beating and problem-solving, let's take a quick tour of some of the highlights of the last year.

But first a warm-up of sorts: Honda's Impossible Dream spot—which aired in December, 2005, and therefore doesn't make the official 2006 list—deserves a mention for Not Being Afraid of the Joy of Great Storytelling, for expansive locations, great nostalgic music, excellent casting, and a fantastically simple premise. In it, a guy emerges from his trailer, mounts a scooter, and then seamlessly moves from product to product, stirring emotions, sweeping us along in his wake, and bringing a tear to many an eye.

Cascading and Celebrating

A universal truth: We all dream, right? Fab. Right up there with the best Benson & Hedges classic spots of the '70s and '80s, where you sat in a cinema and said "How did they do that?" It's this ability to hit us at gut-level which connects all of these spots, big and small, by appealing to us in new and compelling ways.

Moving into 2006, top grades go to Sony for the Bravia paint cannons, for the sheer delight in blowing million of gallons of paint into the air and making us see that the primal idea of celebrating color can take many forms, proving that the cascading balls of Bravia 1 weren't a flash in the pan. (By the way, in the Imitation Is the Sincerest Form of Flattery category, check out the Tango spoof with cascading fruit falling on a small Welsh village. More on imitation in a second.)

And lest we assume that hyper-budget is the only way to go, Apple managed to get us all again with two guys on a white background, some twinkly music, great personifications of their products and features, and some genuine empathy for the competition. And again, while spoofing isn't exactly a new idea (Saturday Night Live was there long ago), the Nintendo Wii spots parodying Apple are fun.

Viral Vodka Video

For Bravely Taking Us All Away from Cliché from all that hyper-testosterone Bryan-Adams-ish machismo of car communication, two awards, one to VW for bringing us the best Heidi Klum reference this year via "Auf Wiedersehen Sucka," with CPB's funny and great online car configurators, Internet banner-games, and generally getting us to "Unpimp" our autos. Anyone that convinces a client to let them use the phrase "Reprazenting Deutschland" on mainstream TV wins big in my book.

Finally, kudos to Harley Davidson for taking the overused Going Your Own Way and ironically spinning it back on itself with their delightful "Black Sheep" spot, which manages to be delicate even with its Guns & Roses soundtrack.

Next, in the Bless Them for Trying category, Smirnoff, for their white viral gangsta rappers that we all circulated for a few days back in the summer. Making fun of the clichés of rap videos—the bling, the grilles and the girls—all from the perspective of a bunch of Martha's Vineyard preppies was a very funny idea. Unfortunately, I'm not quite sure if anyone actually held a "Tea Partay" in response, or even drank the stuff, but we all looked slightly askance at Smirnoff the next day, like they had been kinda slutty but in a good way.

Ready for the Truth

Likewise P&G for their semi-contentious attempt to solve the eternal problem of "Exactly how DO we get people excited about Heat Wraps?" by answering it with, where lots of butch guys talk about cramps and dealing with their "Cyclical Non-Uterine Dysmenorrhea"—i.e., menstrual pain. I actually thought it was pretty funny, but I know some did not. But it got on Leno and in the press, so, hey, people are talking.

Finally, to Chevy, for taking one for the team with their whole open-source Tahoe co-creation thing, where they got universally bashed for everything from gas guzzling to price, but at least they put it all out there. I guess (as I'm sure I'll find out from writing this), if you're prepared to put your opinion out for all to see, you've got to be ready for the avalanche of public opinion, good, bad, and ugly. The worst thing you can do in this era of ubiquity is edit your consumers' ideas about you.

In The No Focus Group Would Ever Approve This in a Million Years category, check out Skittles' weirdly pervy "Beard" spot where, to say the least, the product is merely a brief afterthought to all the spooky facial hair. Find it. I'm not a Skittles consumer but am sure that its creepily-excellent oddness would appeal to those who are. And good on them for doing something that's so off-the-norm that it deserves to be here.

Bottom of the Barrel

Next up, let me recognize the So Awful Its Meta-Awfulness Becomes Art category. This of course was owned for years by Mentos, whose "Freshmaker" Euro-thing was fun there for a minute. But then they got all trendy and learned how to make soda bottles explode and found YouTube and the rest is history. They've been replaced by the spectacularly un-self-aware Head On—with their line "Apply Directly to the Forehead" a low-cost homeopathic topical analgesic, which is aimed at the, shall we say, National Enquirer readers (of which I am one).

This one got the eye of The Colbert Report's Stephen Colbert, was lauded as not only able to cure but give you a headache, and is passed around as a campy, fun way to annoy those you love. Hey, whatever works. (Though note that its Awfulness was too much for some editors, who bumped it from the slide show so as not to promote Meta-Awfulness.)

Finally, talking of underground, The Best Overground and Then Back to Underground award goes to Dove, who yet again managed to surprise us all with their "Evolution" viral video supporting their Self-Esteem Fund that everyone got a couple of months back, where they question the morals of the beauty industry and the negative images they present to young women. Nice, and we all thought that the campignforrealbeauty was becoming too mainstream and ubiquitous and was about to grind to a halt. Now I want to see where they go next.

Keep 'Em Coming

O.K., so now what? What connects all of this stuff? I guess it's actually quite simple—it's smart, it speaks to people in ways that they want to be spoken to, and it brings them into the process. Its shows that you need to be honest, stick with it, and sometimes just let it stay below the radar for a while even though your boss or your client is itching for it to go "primetime;"—I was a big fan of Ford's Bold Moves Web site until they started doing mass media with it. Now it just feels like a tagline, not the social movement it promised to be.

You need to continue to surprise and to deliver on what you claim. Let's not forget that Apple has upped the ante on its products and operating system, has retooled its iLife and iTunes platforms, added lots of new features to its iPods, and opened a gazillion stores as well as done great ads this year. So you have to deliver across the board, tangibly. We've yet to see how the promised Second Coming of advergaming and Second Life pans out, but it's hard enough to figure this stuff out in the real world, never mind virtually.

Channeling the needs of consumers and making sure that they see themselves somehow in the process and the end result is how brands are starting to win. Companies are finding that being open about your experiments and accepting the consequences is critical. And in terms of doing great creative work, it's as valid to look to a teenager in Madison, Wisc. for great small ideas as an agency on Madison Avenue for great big ones. From sweeping epics to bizarre home movies, it's all about great storytelling.

I've said this before and I'll say it again—advertising isn't dead. In many ways, it's never been more alive.