Friday, February 29, 2008

Never trust any ad over 30

Sure, this 39-year-old ad wanted you to believe it was on your side, but it was really snickering at you behind your back. And it's still snickering at all you now-middleaged, would-be non-conformists with the usual leather bomber jackets, black tee-shirts and tattoos.

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Thursday, February 28, 2008

What hath George wrought?

In 1959, George Lois, the pugnacious, somewhat self-aggrandizing (and very creative) ad man, ruffled quite a few agency feathers with his ad for Kerid ear drops. It was solidly based on research that found that most people cleaned their ears by poking bobby pins and whatnot into them, but the imagery was said to be too graphic and offensive. Lois justified it this way in his book, "$ellebrity":
"There is imagery that shocks people for shock's sake -- and imagery that can attract and hold attention because of a meaningful and memorable message."
Of course, 49 years later, it seems rather tame. In 2043, will we feel the same way about this 1994 ad for Kadu surfing shorts:

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Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Woody Allen: the fading brand

At first glance, there's nothing special about the movie ad above (I can't vouch for the movie itself, either; I haven't seen it). The usual mashup of star closeups, an intriguing line of ad copy ("Family is family. Blood is blood.") and lots of gushing blurbs -- "Intense!" "A Chiller!" -- topped off by the near-hysterical headline, "The New York Times IS RAVING! and five lines excerpted from its review. A bit excessive, sure, but still pretty commonplace in movie ads.

If anything is really surprising about this ad, it's the sentence under the title, identifying this as a Woody Allen film. Yes, Woody Allen, the long-time favorite of the critics, the art-house crowd, and occasionally mass audiences -- and that's really the problem.

Through the late '70s, throughout the '80's and into the early '90s, Woody has had a special place in the American cinema; in a sense, he was his own brand; though the content of his movies varied picture to picture -- from romantic comedy to family drama to farce to sex comedy to pseudo-documentary to heartfelt nostalgia -- it was the Woody Allen name that was the true draw at the box office.

Every once in a while, he would find himself with a crossover hit on this hands -- "Hannah & Her Sisters," "Crimes & Misdemeanors" -- but more often than not, his movies were considered by studios and distributors almost as a loss-leader. It was the prestige of having Woody Allen in your stable that mattered, not the revenues his relatively inexpensive movie brought in.

Accordingly, Woody Allen's movies were released with less fanfare and little of the bombast that accompanied mainstream movies. The ads and posters were usually much more spare and graphic, often sacrificing star power for symbolism. Think of the battered office door with "Broadway Danny Rose" lettered on the glass. The fractured title of "Husbands and Wives." The chameleon-like typefaces of "Zelig." Most movie posters are considered art (small "a"); Woody's tended more toward Art (capital "a").

Then...things changed. A combination of factors, really -- the public messiness of his personal life; a merry-go-round of changing studios; a few too many movies that just didn't connect with anyone, even critics; even the aging of his fan base, who didn't get out to movies as often anymore -- and by the mid '90s, Woody's movies weren't reliably drawing even the modest crowds that they used to. To the increasingly competitive and bottom-line industry, the brand was weakening; even their returns of critical acclaim were diminishing.

Woody, as you'd expect, has stayed relatively immune to these changes, still writing and directing movies based on his interests and whims. The marketing however, has changed quite a bit. By the time "Anything Else?" was released in 2003, a new kind of advertising was in place for this film and his future efforts. Whereas Woody Allen's name used to be the main selling point of his movies (despite never being featured prominently), now his mention seems almost an afterthought, with splashier, more conventional images of the stars now competing for attention. If you saw "Match Point," his biggest hit in years, you could have gotten all the way into the theatre before you even realized it was a Woody Allen movie. And after the disappointing performance of his followup film, "Scoop," the studio ratcheted up the hard-sell even more for "Cassandra's Dream." (Not that it seems to have helped.)

Maybe it's not unfair that Woody Allen's movies should be judged on their own merits, not their pedigree. (Even Steven Spielberg doesn't get that pass.) But still, for someone around during Woody's critical (and box office) heyday, there's something sad about seeing his movies advertised in such a pedestrian fashion. It's like seeing a used car dealer on TV hawking a Mercedes.

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Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Fill in the blanks

One of the more effective ways in getting your point across is to invite the reader's involvement in your messaging. If you can get them to mentally "close the loop," it can help them internalize and remember your message longer. One big caveat, though: When you're overly familiar with the brand image, it's easy to lose your perspective and end up with an ad that's more obscure than illuminating.  ( An art director I work with refers to those misguided attempts as "ads for people who were at the brand meeting.")

The two ads above do a terrific job at avoiding that pitfall. Simple, straightforward headlines coupled with images (or in the second ad, lack of images) that are slightly at odds with the assumed visuals -- cubes of crushed metal instead of cars, blank space instead of kids -- but not so confusing that your mind can't quickly reconcile the dissonance and appreciate the implied benefit.


Monday, February 25, 2008

Visualizing the idea

Advertising creative people like to say the idea is everything, but we know how much ideas succeed or fail by their execution.  There are so many variables to consider in producing any ad or commercial.  Yes, some of them end up being just creative preference, but often, these decisions can greatly impact the effectiveness of the communication.

Consider this simple ad from Volkswagon, run during the oil shortages in 1980.  The writer and art director had a concept.  They had a headline.  The question was, how best to illustrate it? They could have hired a professional illustrator.   They could have hired a photographer and shot a picture.  But instead, seeing something compelling in the art director's drawing, they went right from his sketchpad to the layout.  

Would the ad still have worked with a photo or professional illustration?  Probably.  Would it have worked as well? Probably not.  The looseness of the drawing gives it an immediacy that the other techniques wouldn't provide along with a strong sense of empathy and (comic) desperation.

Or maybe it's just poetic justice:  Many clients, when presented rough layouts by their agencies, would then ask why they'd have to pay for photos or illustrations when the picture is already right there on the layout.   In this case, anyway, they'd be right.


Friday, February 22, 2008

The Zeitgeist Brand: Virginia Slims

Every once in a while, the right brand appears at just the right time, when larger events in the world or culture add a special resonance to a product.  To me, they're "Zeitgeist Brands" -- after the German word that translates to "spirit of the age." It's one of the most powerful marketing tools available, but almost by definition, it's one of the most unpredictable.  Hard to create and usually impossible to duplicate.

Sometimes it happens by accident, but it can be planned, too.  Apple's 1984 TV spot, for example, played off the cultural fascination with reaching the titular year of Aldous Huxley's dystopian novel.  But that was less about branding and more about making an introductory splash; although it helped create the Macintosh computer's image of a user-friendly device, the spot was a single-event phenomenon.  

Here's a better example. In 1968, Phillip Morris introduced Virginia Slims, a spinoff of their Benson & Hedges brand. If you are what you smoke, this slimmer, longer cigarette was about as aspirational as you could get when marketing to young, professional women.

But it was the advertising campaign that really cemented the bond between the smoker and the smoked.  The pros at Leo Burnett -- the same people who indelibly linked Marlboro cigarettes to male ruggedness and independence -- now worked similar magic with Virginia Slims.  This time, instead of finding inspiration in the American West, they looked to America Now -- specifically the women's liberation movement that was growing in society and awareness by the media.   Its messages of emancipation, equality and empowerment -- leavened with humor and contemporary stylishness -- were epitomized by its slogan. "You've come a long way, baby." in fact, it became a cultural catch phrase, as the ads and commercials found themselves as one of the most visible presences (albeit a safe, non-threatening presence, if you discount the tar and nicotine) of the women's movement.

As perhaps the fate of any product so closely aligned with a cultural movement, Virginia Slims would follow roughly the same arc.  After growing in market share throughout the 1970s, Virginia Slims started receding in the late '80s in the face of new competition from the new Capri and Misty cigarette -- brands now more in sync with the focus on sex appeal and sexual power that had become the new expression of independence for young women.

UPDATE 5/2: Welcome visitors from Digg. I write every weekday about ads and advertising, but with the goal of being informative and especially entertaining to a general audience. If you like what you've read, here are some other posts that you might enjoy:

I discuss another Zeitgeist Brand here.

Who's the father of modern advertising? Is it him or him?

You know about "Got Milk?" but do you know "Got Mink?"

See how the 1960s counter-culture influenced advertising here, here and here.

Here's how "Jaws II" was actually more influential than the original "Jaws."

Read about Advertising Minimalism here and here.

What's the big Superbowl commercial that Apple just hopes you've forgotten?

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Thursday, February 21, 2008

I'll show you mine if you show me yours

It's hard to remember back when laptops weren't so ubiquitous in life, but just 12 years ago,although the market was growing rapidly, they were still a bit of a novelty item.   Apple responded to the success of its redesigned Powerbook computer the year before with its "What's on your PowerBook?" 1996 ad campaign.

Each ad gave us a look into the hard drive contents of two very different individuals, the underlying idea being how the Powerbook itself was an expression of your own life and interests.  The pairings alone were kind of interesting, but it was the fun of rummaging through their personal files that made the ads so irresistible -- even though the contents invariably ended up not being particularly provocative, like sneaking a peek inside someone's diary and reading, "Today I got up and brushed my teeth."  Yes, your desktop computer could hold all the same information, but this campaign is emotionally, not rationally based.

In the ad above (you can click on it to see a larger, more readable version), we see that Sales Manager Barry Ashley stores product inventories, customer lists, his stock broker's phone number and -- I guess to show he's more just than his job -- his sister's recipe for spaghettini.   Brian Durkin, a bike messenger/screenwriter files his screenplays, notes from his screenwriting class, story ideas and "thoughts on self-improvement," which probably don't include anything along the lines of buying clothes that fit and getting a real job.

Other ads in the series contrasted the laptop contents of (publisher and ex-wife of Norman) Frances Lear and author Tama Janowitz; tennis pro Martina Navratilova and pro football player Art Monk; and, most puzzlingly, a priest and musician Todd Rundgren.


Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Shiny new ad

"Double your room height." suggests this 2004 British ad for the Australian-made Mr. Sheen floor cleaner.  Simple, effective and (appropriately) clean layout.  A message with timeless appeal, although the loft setting of painted brick, factory windows and restored wood floor certainly locks it into the modern era.  Mr. Sheen is not to be confused with America's Mr. Clean, by the way.  Mr. Clean is, of course, a smiling bald genie; Mr. Sheen is a smiling bald man.  Except in Britain, where Mr. Sheen is WWI-era biplane pilot.  And where Mr. Clean is known as Mr. Proper.  And where there's another cleaning product called Mr. Muscles. Got all that?


Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Is this the greatest ad campaign ever?

You can quibble about the aesthetics (and hiss at the product itself), but impact of Leo Burnett's ads and TV commercials can't really be overstated; it may not be the greatest ad campaign ever, but it's easily the greatest product re-positioning in history. Tying the product to iconic images of the American West and the rugged individualism of the cowboy was an inspiration, but perhaps an obvious one; after all, the campaign was created at the height of TV's cowboy craze.  

But in all likelihood, no one at the time probably realized how long-running and resilient the campaign would prove to be.  In fact, as the campaign evolved through the '60s, with cinematic photography and the epic sweep of Elmer Bernstein's theme from "The Magnificent Seven," it only grew in power and imperviousness.  Even as the dangers of smoking grew in awareness, along with the size of the Surgeon General's warning, the always silent, manly cowboy seemed to belay the seriousness of the risk.  After the government barred cigarette advertising from the airwaves, and many brands stumbled, Marlboro's simple imagery transferred easily to billboards and ads.  

And though the cowboy genre itself never regained its 1950s-level of popularity, the campaign's depiction of the idealized male gave it a lasting appeal that transcended the genre.

But appreciating the real brilliance of the campaign comes from understanding the brand before the Marlboro Cowboy. Because it was about a far from a "manly" brand as you could get; in fact, it was a British brand that had been marketed to females.   And in fact, the filter that was recently added to Marlboros only added to its feminine qualities (by the standards of the era).

Imagine someone trying to give Virginia Slims a male image and you'll have some idea of the immensity of Leo Burnett's accomplishment.

Below is a sampling of some Marlboro spots of the '60s and '70s, with the unforgettable Marlboro theme. (Apologies to Mr. Bernstein, but at this point, it's surely more identified with the cigarette than than the movie he composed it for.)


Monday, February 18, 2008

And that's the way it was...

I guess when your client is "the most trusted newsman in America," you can get away with this 1964 ad.  Still, it shows quite a level of confidence and daring by CBS to quote their star anchor's commitment to hustling for the story -- "Nothing replaces two feet in motion." -- under a photo that pictures the exact opposite.  Yet there is something undeniably compelling about seeing the paterfamilias of network news in this candid, unglamorous pose (he even has a pipe in his mouth, though it's hard to tell at this size).  The copy, of course, goes on for some length about Walter Cronkite's credentials, before finally assuring us, "As for those feet on the desk, don't be misled.  He's just recharging his batteries."  

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Friday, February 15, 2008

Underselling the product

It's easy to snicker at advertising from the 1950s. Riding the post-war wave of optimism and consumerism, it seems like every ad featured ecstatic homeowners and/or grandiose promises well out of proportion to what was being sold.  And at first glance, the 1953 ad above seems like just another example.  But read the headline again -- It Will Add To Your Happiness!  Cadillac isn't promising to change your life, just to add to whatever happiness you already have.  That little understatement may not seem so revolutionary, but consider the kind of car commercials we see today, forever promising to make you something you're not -- more attractive, more outgoing, more successful.  Happiness may be the end result, but all too often, today's ads seem to assume that you're starting with nothing.


Thursday, February 14, 2008

One more Bear for the road

We're a long way from the heyday of what adman Leo Burnett called "critters," the cartoon animals and imps that advertised not just cereals, but all manner of packaged goods and cleaning products.  It's all too common for creative people today to sneer at such populist tactics, even as they wear tee shirts and caps emblazoned with the animated pitchmen they fondly remember from their childhoods.  Yet as more longtime advertisers try to leverage the heritage of their brands and reconnect with consumers, we're seeing a bit of a resurgence in the use of these characters. 

One popular critter, unfortunately, who'll probably never return to active employment is the Hamm's Bear.  Created in 1952 by Minneapolis' Campbell-Mithun agency, the Bear had a nearly 30-year run (despite being sidelined for most of the 1970s) as the marketing mascot of the Midwestern Brewery.  The lovable, bumbling Bear, along with the beer's memorable tom-tom driven jingle and "From The Land  Of Sky Blue Waters" themeline worked together seamlessly to promote the beer; in fact, Advertising Age would rank Hamm's 75th on it's list of the Top 100 Ad Campaigns of the 20th Century.  Alas, by the early '90s, changing ad agencies, a changing market, and a fear that the animated character would be viewed as advertising beer to children put the bear into permanent hibernation.

Commercial artist (and my father-in-law), Bill Stein, spent a good part of his career sharing the illustration duties on the Hamm's Bear for ads, posters and other printed materials.  Although he wasn't the Bear's originator, he's illustrated the cartoon bruin more often than any other artist, putting him in all manner of North Woods settings and humorous situations.  In fact, when a granite monument commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Hamm's campaign was created and placed near the historic Hamm Building in St. Paul, Minnesota,  Bill both designed and illustrated it.  Along with his recent designs for other Bear memorabilia for the Hamm's Club, Bill has played a big role in keeping the Bear alive, even if it's only as part of Minnesota and advertising history.  

For anyone who's unfamiliar with the Hamm's campaign, this vintage commercial sums it up its appeal pretty nicely:

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Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Uneasy writer

Here's another example of advertising referencing youth culture with all the awkwardness you'd expect from a bunch of middleaged guys at their wood-veneer desks. Obviously, this isn't the real audience for United Van Line's services -- hence the snarky swipe at those dropouts who don't wash, don't shave, don't dress nicely and don't respect the World War II generation's values. As is probably obvious (at least to those of us over 40), this 1969 ad's imagery draws directly on the movie "Easy Rider," released that same year. To a society whose window to American youth was mainly Frankie & Annette and Gidget movies, it was the having your previously cleancut kid come home from college as a long-haired radical.

The movie's story of two hippies unburdened by American materialism who hit the road "in search of America," was about as far as you could get from United's message of responsibly moving your possessions from one place to another pre-planned destination. Just to cover themselves (maybe they realized that one day those same hippies would become yuppies with big houses in the suburbs), the copy assures us in its second sentence, "Not that we have anything against people traveling light." (Who said the Establishment never tried to close the generation gap?)

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Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Computer chip on its shoulder

For those of you who think the generation gap-tinged clashes between computer companies are a relatively recent phenomenon, this 1963 ad says "forget it, man!"  

Burroughs Corporation was always a distant second to IBM, which probably did give them a bit of a defensive posture and the attitude of a young upstart. The headline plays off the so-called "Angry Young Men" films of the early '60s, socially conscious British films centered on working-class protagonists.

But it's really an old codger just playing the part of a young whippersnapper. Burroughs actually began life back in 1886, selling adding machines until it got into computers around 1953. So by the time this ad ran, this "angry young" company was about 77 years old, actually two years older than IBM. Burroughs finally cashed in its computer chips in 1986, merging with the Sperry Corporation to form Unisys.


Monday, February 11, 2008

Bob & Ray, Admen Extraordinare

During their 5 decades of performing together on radio and TV programs, Bob Elliot and Ray Goulding have portrayed befuddled newsmen, quirky interview subjects, didactic soap opera characters another media mainstays.  But of all the targets of their deadpan, underplayed style, one the best has been their commercial parodies.  Sure, that sounds like faint praise, what with the glut of commercial parodies all over TV and the internet these days, but Bob & Ray appropriated the language of advertising with an insightfulness that's easy to miss while you're laughing at their off-kilter dialogue.

Their commercials for fictitious sponsor Monongahela Metal Foundry -- "Casting Steel Ingots With The Housewife In Mind"-- make a mockery of advertisers' attempts at consumer relevance.   Their Einbinder Flypaper slogan -- "The Brand You've Gradually Grown To Trust Over The Course Of Three Generations" -- was a typical heritage-hyping appeal and yet resonated with a candor ("gradually grown to trust") few companies would dare to use.  And their message from the Croftweiler Industrial Cartel  -- "Makers Of All Sorts Of Stuff, Made Out Of Everything" -- skewered GE-style corporate umbrella branding.

You can learn a lot about writing copy from these two.  Or at least learn what not to write.

By the way, Bob & Ray are not to be confused with Bert & Harry, another comedic team that appeared in commercials for Piels Beer back in the '50s (but who were, coincidentally voiced by Bob and Ray).

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Friday, February 8, 2008

(b)ad copy (#1 in a series)

Today on the radio, I heard a commercial for a grocery chain that promised savings "on everything from string cheese to cocktail weenies."  Yes, I know, it's a common turn of phrase in advertising a range of products, and I've used it myself on occasion, but it works in some contexts and not in others -- and this is one of the others.

"Everything from string cheese to cocktail weenies."  What exactly falls between those extremes?  Does laundry detergent fit in there?  Does ice cream?  And are string cheese and cocktail weenies really extremes at all?  Aren't they both party snacks?  In one sense, I guess, you could say the phrase did its job, because I obviously remembered it hours after hearing the commercial.  On the other hand, I still don't know if hot dogs are on sale.  Do they fall to the right or the left of cocktail weenies?

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Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Another Jane campaign

Before we move on to other subjects, here's one more brilliant 1970s-era campaign from advertising legend, Jane Trahey.  Not every woman could afford her other client, Blackglama, but Jane made sure they (and Dynel itself) didn't have to feel inferior because of it.  "It's not fake anything.  It's real Dynel." defined the product in a boldly unapologetic fashion that, but for its synthetic-sounding name (which just doesn't have the same futuristic appeal as when the folks at Union Carbide thought it up) could probably be just as effective in today's fur-averse culture.

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Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Got mink?

Long before the milk campaign, there was "What Becomes A Legend Most" for Blackglama mink. The long-running campaign began in 1968, the creation of Jane Trahey, a bit of a legend herself in the advertising industry, though largely overlooked by the industry today.  Named Advertising Woman of the Year in 1969 by the American Advertising Federation, Jane had a knack for catchy themelines ("Danskins Are Not Just For Dancing." and for Echo Scarves, "The Echo Of An Interesting Woman") that captured the essence of a product and gave it an irresistible appeal.

After making her mark in the advertising departments of Carson Pirie Scott and Nieman Marcus, she started her own agency, Jane Trahey & Associates and continued to make fashion and cosmetics advertising her speciality.  On the side, she wrote magazine articles and books, including the autobiographical novel that was the basis for the 1966 film, "The Trouble With Angels."

But the Blackglama ads were her most famous work.  Appropriately, the ads featured the most glamorous of celebrities, among them Barbra Streisand, Carol Channing, Lauren Bacall and Judy Garland, in photographs by Richard Avedon. Forty years later, the campaign continues.; though the legends of Broadway and film have been largely replaced with the latest supermodels. A cheapening of the definition of "legend," perhaps, but the photos remain as striking as ever.

And not a single woman with a milk moustache.

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And now we come to this book

In the movie biz, it's first-time filmmakers making films about first-time filmmakers. In the ad world, it's people escaping ad agencies to publish novels about people trapped in ad agencies. I've already covered one of those -- and there's still a few more to get to, including this one by (as if I had to tell you) a former copywriter, Joshua Ferris. But what can I tell you about "Then We Came To The End" that you probably haven't already read in the numerous year-end lists that picked it as one of the best books of 2007?  I will admit to being a bit surprised by the accolades, but I did enjoy the book. Its run-on, chatty, stream-of-consciousness style perfectly captured the industry mind-set, the oddball charaters that people agencies and the pointless turf wars.  But in many ways, it's a pretty universal workplace cynicism that's been mined in both movies ("Office Space") and TV ("The Office") in recent years. 

Strange as this may sound, what made it work for me was the lack of anything really significant occurring in the story (including the whimper-not-a-bang ending).  Just trudging through day after dreary day with these people, as they chitchat in the halls and scramble to look busy when somebody's watching -- by the end of the book, I did feel as caught up in their lives as I've felt with real ad agency coworkers in the past. It's been a couple of months now, but I kind of miss the old gang -- Chris Yop, Benny Shassberger, Amber Ludwig, Jim Jackers, Genevieve Latko-Devine, and the rest -- and wonder what they're doing these days.


Monday, February 4, 2008

Apple thinks again

Thirteen years after creating Apple's famous "1984" spot, and twelve years after the poorly received followup spot, "Lemmings", Chiat/Day got yet another crack at the "don't follow the herd" message with Apple's "Think Different" campaign.

This time, however, they dispensed with the downbeat imagery in favor of a Baby Boomer icon lovefest.  Moving and effective, but with a bit of a cloying aftertaste; you'd be hard-pressed to find another spot in recent memory that, through association, elevated a product's users to almost saintly status.

And yes, that's Richard Dreyfus doing the voiceover, continuing the advertising industry's obsession with big-time actors as off-camera announcers (a topic for another day).


Friday, February 1, 2008

The forgotten Apple Superbowl ad

...or maybe the one just Apple just wishes everyone would forget.

Of course, it was Apple's "1984" spot in that year's Superbowl that really started the whole idea of "event" commercials, which has been pretty much done to death over the years by Pepsi and Diet Coke, Doritos, Budweiser and a wastebasket full of defunct web sites.  Admittedly, these big budget but usually vapid spots have been often more entertaining than the events that they sponsored, but too many years of unmet expectations seemed to have dampened most people's anticipation for the latest 30-second extranvaganzas.

Being unable to live up to their own hype was a problem Apple faced just one year after their ground-breaking 1984 triumph.  Despite another big budget, more disturbing, bleak visuals and a similarly empowering message, the "Lemmings" spot was a pale shadow of their previous production, ignored by viewers and derided by critics.  

Still, it's hard to figure out exactly why.  Probably the best explanation is simply that the commercial "1984" tied in the zeitgeist surrounding the year 1984 in a way that is almost impossible to duplicate.  Even now, it's hard to remember the impact of that moment in our culture when we actually reached the titular year in H.G. Welle's dystopian novel.

Well, it may not have moved much product, but "Lemmings" does have its own bit of immortality -- it's the obvious inspiration for a very similar dream sequence by Norm in a "Cheers" episode you can still catch in reruns.