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Schmio Awards Bash Ad Industry

by Marion Wrenn

Let's Kick Ads!: Round Five of the Schmios
On April 12, the fifth annual Schmio Awards delivered a swift kick in the ads. Spoofing the advertising industry's Clio Awards, the Schmios honored not the savviest, not the sexiest, but this year's most crass, offensive and egregious ads. Sponsored by New York University's Department of Culture and Communication and hosted by media critic and NYU professor Mark Crispin Miller, the Schmios did their usual service: bedeviling seemingly innocuous ads, taking them out of context and offering subversive contrasts.

Organized around the theme of "Advertising as a Drug," the show opened with a clip from Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. The audience watched as Kubrick's apes confront the monolith, become agitated and begin to evolve. Cut to a 2001 Kentucky Fried Chicken ad. Not the dawn of man exactly: two befuddled young men recline in a convertible, eat chicken sandwiches and "contemplate" the vast expanse of stars. Replacing the monolith is a giant KFC sign. Miller juxtaposed these two visuals to show that commercial art (like film) can indeed expand your mind; but advertising encourages mind "contraction."

"This is not opening the doors of perception, it's nailing them shut," quipped Miller. Advertising, with its spectacle and speed, has become a too-familiar drug. We're dazzled by advertising and agitated to distraction. Instead of "evolving," as Kubrick would have it, we consume. Each year, the Schmio Awards set out to expose this pattern.

The opening Schmio was awarded by social critic Barbara Ehrenreich to Eli Lilly's Sarafem, a "new" drug for a "new" illness: Pre-Menstrual Dysphoric Disorder (PMDD). Critiquing the direct-to-consumer drug ads, Ehrenreich asked if there were any doctors in the house: "If you want to heal the sick today," she jibed, "go into advertising."

The Sarafem campaign depicts women on the verge of a nervous breakdown under the pressures of everyday frustrations: a wobbly shopping cart, jeans that don't fit. Sarafem, aka fluoxetine, aka Prozac (aka "Prozac in Drag," as Ehrenreich put it), was designed to treat depression. But Eli Lilly received FDA approval to sell Prozac under the name Sarafem, arguing the name change would "help with educational efforts for this largely unrecognized disorder while reducing confusion about the differences between depression and PMDD." The ads position PMS as a medical, treatable disorder and, in doing so, pathologize emotional swings, self-doubt and daily stress. Ehrenreich deftly critiqued the ads and offered a challenge: "Don't take a pill. Honor your bitchiness and use it to fight back."

Joe Conason (of and co-author of The Hunting of the President) presented a Schmio to a group called Republicans for Clean Air. Conason showed an attack ad aimed at New York Republicans that made then-Governor Bush look like the benevolent friend of the environment and McCain look like the devil. The Schmios audience guffawed at the Governor Bush ad for clean air. "You'd think he's John Muir himself," said Conason.

But the images of weekenders with canoes and blue skies edited together with a smiling Dubya were not Conason's point. The 30-second spot denigrating McCain's record and lauding Bush's "outstanding environmentalism" was paid for by Republicans for Clean Air, a group that spent $2 million on air time. Conason's punchline? Since the organization was a front for pro-Bush Republicans, Conason called this Schmio "The Willie Horton Achievement Award for Most Revolting Campaign Commercial" -- a reference to an inflammatory ad put together by a phony front group during Bush Sr.'s presidential run.

Village Voice media critic Leslie Savan followed with an equally damning presentation. She awarded a Schmio to Budweiser for its ubiquitous "Whasssuup!" campaign. First Savan showed the original "Whasssuup!" ad, featuring several black guys hanging out, watching the game, bonding over the call with the response of "Whasssuup!" Then she showed the second ad in the series, which depicts non-black yuppie nerds attempting their own slang: "How are YOU doing?!" they say. The spot ends with two black men from the first commercial watching the second commercial with bewildered expressions.

Savan let the audience laugh at the ads, then made one of the most incisive presentations of the evening. She offered a genealogy of the slang term, describing how it was depicted in a student film, spotted by an ad agency and promptly co-opted.

"Filling the gap left by the Arsenio 'Whoop,'" said Savan, "'Whasssuup' refreshes a viewer's sense of irony and multicultural savvy." Savan said the ads suggest that Bud "can make cool black men out of repressed white males." Bud's appropriation of this slang term "flatters white people that they can get in touch with their inner black men -- but not their outer, because it stands in for knowing any real black people." Savan revealed these amusing ads to be loaded with ideological (read: racist) freight. With Savan's presentation, it became clear that the folks who've refined the art of the ad critique -- Miller, Savan, Neil Postman -- are carving the way out of the amusing blur of images that surround us.

Media critic Josh Ozersky (who writes for Business 2.0,, and Newsday) next awarded a Schmio to Land Rover and Kia. Ozersky argued ads like Land Rover's (in which a small child is dwarfed by the humongous vehicle as he taps on the window to ask the driver if her son can come out to play) are "not just crass and fraudulent" but "cruel" in that they position us as have-nots, always aspiring to the power promised by these giant vehicles. Ozersky used a clip from The Simpsons to illustrate his point (Krusty the Clown sells out and becomes a spokesman for a ridiculously big SUV).

Revealing how "synergy" is "just plain conflict of interest" when a news program promotes a product owned by the same parent organization, FAIR's Janine Jackson gave CBS's Early Show a "Survivor" challenge. Jackson tracked a series of Survivor and Early Show episodes, showing how the Early Show was being used as a marketing tool by CBS (which owns both programs): Bryant Gumbel and Jane Clayson making straight-faced segues between discussion of British Prime Minister Tony Blair and their upcoming Survivor Roundtable featuring Survivors "voted off" their island. The line between journalism and entertainment blurred a long time ago; this we know. Yet Jackson urged her audience to think about the growing problem one more time.

Between presenters, "award-winning" ads filled the screen:

  • Discover Card won the "Worst Vision of American Healthcare" Schmio. The audience erupted in dismay at the company's ER-esque, tongue-in-cheek depiction of an emergency room patient's delight at getting "cash back bonus rewards" for treatment at the fictional "St. Sophia's Hospital."

  • Fox Regional Sports Report won "The Rudyard Kipling Prize for the Year's Most Racist TV Spot" for an ad that tries to spoof South Asian broadcasters and Indian TV (but falls painfully short).

  • The "Coldest Ad of the Year" went to Coca-Cola for a spot depicting two high school girls whose post-graduation ceremony turns violent when they realize neither brought any of the favored soda (Miller dubs the characters "nasty half-wits").

  • Nike won in the "Sickest Parody" category for its "Why Sport? You'll Live Longer" ad. Spoofing Halloween and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the creepy spot ends with the "victim" outrunning a chainsaw-wielding killer.

  • And lastly, not to be under-performed, Pepsi won in the "Wildest Exaggeration of a Product" category for its recent Super Bowl ad, featuring teen-queen singer Britney Spears and Bob Dole (Pepsi calls up the joys of Viagra with Dole's "Easy, Boy" response to the bouncy blond).

Over the years, the Schmio's producers have realized that slamming ads -- though fun -- only goes so far. So they've started to award "positive Schmios," honoring those who fight against hyper-commercialism and commercial propaganda.

This year, a Schmio salute went to the Center for Commercial-Free Public Education, a national nonprofit group that has fought to purge public schools of corporate propaganda. Andrew Hagelshaw, the center's executive director, received an award for helping to launch "a movement against the growing domination of our public property by global media." The Center exposed textbook publisher McGraw Hill's surreptitious inclusion of a Nike ad in a sixth grade textbook, and has practically shut down ZapMe -- a company that provides schools with computers and Internet access in exchange for zapping students with commercials and shopping-habit questionnaires.

In keeping with this positive spin, the Schmios delivered a "Schiller Award," in honor of communication studies pioneer Herbert I. Schiller, to John R. MacArthur for exposŽs of 1990s propaganda campaigns, and for his work as publisher of Harper's magazine. Along with Harper's editor Lewis Lapham, said media critic Neil Postman, MacArthur is responsible for a "sensational overhaul of a national treasure."

For the first time the Schmios also saluted a commercial artist who works in defiance of "the 'malling' of the culture," as Mark Crispin Miller put it. Singer-songwriter Ani DiFranco became the first recipient of the award "for the beauty and power of her unusual music" and for her leadership of Righteous Babe, the fiercely independent music label.

With the DiFranco tribute, the fifth annual Schmios wrapped up on a note of hope. Miller remarked that ad culture is as ubiquitous as ever, but that its power and hold "can't last forever, it has to break down. The truth will out."

Perhaps that should be the new Schmio Awards slogan. Instead of "Let's Kick Ads!" it should be "Schmios: the True 'True.'"

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Albion Monitor May 5, 2001 (

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