The Ad Industry Bungles Its Own Promotion
By Paul Lukas

(FORTUNE Magazine) – The Clio awards, which honor creative excellence in advertising, are sometimes referred to as the Oscars of the ad world. Past winners include classics like Apple Computer's 1984 commercial and Coca-Cola's Mean Joe Greene spot. So you'd figure that any self-promotion done by the Clio operation would be classy.

Not quite. The Clios' current call-for-entries ad, which has appeared in trade magazines like Adweek, shows a Clio trophy surrounded by a group of villagers whose dress and posture clearly place them outside the modern world. They appear to be eyeing the statue with a mixture of wonderment and confusion. A caption at lower-left reads, "The Clio. The most famous advertising award in the world."

It's hard to know what to make of this. At best, the ad is a bit ambiguous; at worst, it seems to imply that the Clios are so renowned that they're even held in awe by people who, y' know, don't read magazines and can't afford television sets--pretty offensive, no? Clio executive director Andrew Jaffe has an explanation, and it's a doozy. He says the ad (whose photo, it turns out, is set in Malaysia) is actually meant to be a joke--a self-deprecating joke. "First we came up with this new line, 'The most famous advertising award in the world,' which we think is an equity we can own," he explains. "Then we decided to sort of laugh at ourselves a little, admitting that there are some parts of the world, like this village, that have never heard of Clio. It was just meant to be ironic." So it has come to this: Advertising's irony factor has become so pervasive that even an awards program is playing the wink-wink, nudge-nudge game.

Unfortunately, they're not playing it well. As Jaffe should know, one of the first rules of irony is that something should be well established before you mess with it, which means his ad strategy would have made a lot more sense if the "most famous ..." line had already been around for a few years. What's the point of letting the air out of a slogan you've just created?

In any case, using the impoverishment of the Third World to poke fun at oneself seems to be a move of rather questionable taste ("Those wacky villagers--no hospitals, no indoor plumbing, and no award-winning TV commercials to watch!"), especially since the Clios, arguably advertising's most prestigious honors, have generated a backlash in recent years from critics who think advertising unduly influences and reinforces material culture. "The flip side of an ad-fueled society, where everyone owns three cars and two TVs, is that large parts of the world--like the people in this ad--live in poverty," says Carrie McLaren, one of the organizers of an anti-Clios mock awards ceremony called the Shmios. "This ad tries to turn that into a joke. Even if it's a self-directed joke, it's just gross."

Jaffe is generally receptive and even sympathetic to many of the standard critiques of advertising. But for a guy who oversees the judging of other people's ads, he has a surprisingly lax attitude about the ones he runs for the Clios. Does he feel that his role in the industry gives him a special obligation to produce great work? "Not exactly," he says. "I don't pretend that I'm doing a Super Bowl-worthy ad. We don't go to consumers, we go to the trade, and that's a very cynical group of people. We just want to get their attention and remind them that it's time for Clio again." In a moment of surprising candor, he adds, "Frankly, I don't give these things a lot of thought." With this ad, unfortunately, it shows.

--Paul Lukas