The Magazine

Advertisements for Themselves

Commercials in a Postmodern Age

Nov 15, 1999, Vol. 5, No. 09 • By BRIAN MURRAY
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Kanner, however, isn't primarily interested in advertising as "an instrument of sales," to use Julian Watkins's respectful phrase. Her list "honors aesthetics more than effectiveness in moving product." These commercials "took a strong-selling proposition" and "served it to customers in a fresh, surprising, and unusually persuasive way." Kanner's "100 best" commercials "have been admired and envied as breakthroughs" within the industry and throughout the world.

Kanner -- who used to write the "On Madison Avenue" column for New York magazine -- describes and briefly discusses each of her choices, most of which were produced by top agencies in Europe and the United States, including Young & Rubicam, Chiat/Day, Saatchi & Saatchi International, and the Leo Burnett Company. Weeding through fifty years of the world's commercials would make anyone weary -- or mad; and Kanner, not surprisingly, had help. This assortment, she explains, "was selected from the industrywide Great Commercials Library and winnowed down by creative directors" -- a process that "practically guaranteed what I'd be slurping was cream."

Curiously, however, Kanner's list overlooks the work of Stan Freberg, who did much to inspire the so-called "creative revolution" that -- to the chagrin of many on Madison Avenue -- changed the face of advertising during the 1960s. Tip of the Freberg, a recently released box set containing four CDs and a video, covers nearly five decades of Freburg's work; it confirms him as one of the top talents of modern advertising -- an unusually witty and inventive comedian and parodist whose most memorable campaigns, like the best Marx Brothers skits, have stayed fresh for decades.

Freberg first earned wide attention during the 1950s, when he recorded a string of hit comedy records and hosted his own network radio show. (An updated version, "The New Stan Freberg Show," aired on the BBC and NPR in the early nineties.) Produced in the late 1950s, Freberg's first radio commercials spoofed advertising's bombastic and lavish claims. In one, a chorus of singers merrily proclaim that "ninety-five percent of the people in the USA are not buying Chun King Chow Mein." On radio, Freberg specialized in imagery at once outrageous and precise. Another early spot, for the Contadina Company, prompted listeners to picture a mammoth can of tomato paste trimmed with lights and perched atop the Empire State Building. In Morse code, the can blinks out the now legendary advertising question: "Who puts eight great tomatoes in that little bitty can?"

Freberg hit full stride in the late 1960s, when he produced a series of movie parodies for, among others, Jeno's Pizza Rolls and Banquet Frozen Foods. In Freberg's 1970 ad for Heinz's new line of "Great American Soups," the dancer and actress Ann Miller stars as a wife who -- promising her husband something a little different for dinner -- magically transforms her modest kitchen into an elaborate stage set fit for a Busby Berkeley musical. Accompanied by dozens of sequined dancers, Miller hoofs it up atop a giant soup can, singing "Let's Face the Chicken Gumbo and Dance!" "Emily," her husband asks in the concluding shot, "why do you always have to make such a big production out of everything?" This spot won Freberg several awards, including two Clios -- the ad industry's top prize.

By 1970, however, funny commercials had become commonplace. The firm of Doyle Dane Bernbach had long specialized in humor; two of their most creative Volkswagen ads are well-known to students of advertising and not surprisingly rank among Kanner's top hundred. The low-budget "Snow-plow," first aired in 1963, showed the humble Bug chugging along snow-packed streets in the dark of pre-dawn. "Have you ever wondered," the voice-over asks, "how the man who drives the snowplow drives to the snowplow?"

Six years later, "Funeral" again stressed the car's durable economy through a wry tale of wastefulness and greed. A wealthy man, recently deceased, looks down upon his own funeral and comments bitterly on the profligate ways of his relatives and friends. To the business partner "whose only motto was spend, spend, spend, I leave nothing, nothing, nothing." But to his Volk-swagen-driving nephew, a model of prudence, the narrator bequeaths "my entire fortune of $ 100 billion dollars."