As some of you know, I’m hosting the Obie Awards for the Outdoor Advertising Association of America. The Obies celebrate the best outdoor advertising in the Nation. What some of you may not know is that the Obies are the oldest advertising awards show in the world, predating the Clios, One Show and even Cannes.

(Video of my presentation is located in “About Me” section in header.)

Since creating the “curiously strong” mints campaign for Altoids over 15 years ago, I’ve appreciated the out-of-home medium and all it can do for a brand… not to mention a career!

With Altoids, we took a tiny, virtually unknown confection and turned it into the number one selling mint in North America, all without making one single television commercial.

Outdoor advertising took Altoids places it had never gone before. And visa versa. It was truly a match made in heaven. And one for which I am eternally grateful.

Below are my opening remarks at the Obie awards, posted here several hours before making them…

Right now everyone is talking about social media. And rightly so. New media is a game changer. At its core, social media is about establishing personal connections. But guess what? So is out-of-home.

Frankly, the closer a message is to the street the more “social” it becomes…and the stronger its connectivity with a consumer. Guerilla marketing, street theater, wild posters, if done well, are riveting propaganda and among the strongest weapons in all of marketing. This is why, even as mass media fades in its importance to advertisers, OOH remains relevant, even breakthrough.

Unlike other media, out of home has existed since the beginning of time. From day one, nature provided Earth with numerous signs. The creatures of the Earth read these signs and acted accordingly. The leaves turned color. That meant it was time to build a nest, accumulate stores…mate. The sun itself was a moving billboard, motivating animal migration, feeding habits and other rituals.

It was no different for Man. Signs governed his every move, heralding good tidings and bad. With man’s growing inquisitiveness, signs took on greater and greater meaning, shaping his belief systems and laws. He needed only to look up and the messages were there.

As soon as man began making his own signs, creativity was born. Though primitive, man’s need to create signs was intuitive. It still is. We want others to know who we are. What we want. To believe what we believe. To do things our way. Or else! For centuries, out of home advertising has provided humankind a means to achieve its agenda. For better or for worse.

In 1958, Lady Bird Johnson tried to ban outdoor advertising in the United States. Called the Highway Beautification Act, her aim was to eliminate out of home advertising altogether. Despite her good intentions, the law failed. Your forefathers were too good at lobbying! Frankly, Lady Bird couldn’t stop signs from going up anymore than we could stop making them. Creating signs is ritual, ingrained in our humanity. It is who we are.

Like Mrs. Johnson, I too dream of a beautiful America. But without signs? That’s not possible. Or necessary. I believe signs can be compelling, provocative and beautiful. Frankly, they better be. For what they are covering up often times is.

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Sign, sign, everywhere a sign…

We finished judging the 2010 Obie Awards yesterday, on time and, for the most part, in agreement. For those unawares, the Obies celebrate the best outdoor advertising in North America and abroad.

Among my co-judges were old friend, John Butler (Butler, Shine, Stern & Partners) and living legend, Stan Richards (The Richards Group). Rounding out the team were Scott Boswell, John Marson, Joe Zubizaretta and Tony Calcoa of Crispin Porter & Bogusky. Definitely a good panel.

OAAA Chief Marketing Officer, Stephen Freitas and Company run a tight ship, from judging process to final gala. The awards ceremony (which, by the way, I will be hosting) takes place May 4th at the Desert Ridge Marriott in Phoenix, AZ. In addition to the parsing of awards, the exemplary MINI Cooper campaign will be inducted into the Obie Hall of Fame.

Since my wonder years on Altoids, I’ve long appreciated the out-of-home (OOH) medium and know what it can do for a brand as well as a career. ;-) As other mass media fades in its importance to advertisers, OOH continues to stay relevant, if not downright indispensable. Social media is all about establishing personal connections and, ironically, so is good outdoor. Yes, a billboard seems about as mass as mass media gets, randomly targeting every Tom, Dick and Harry driving along the highway. But look at it this way (and you really should): many drivers see the same boards every day during their commute, establishing a bond of sorts with the message. Each day the person rethinks his or her position on the message, even if subconsciously. Either way, these boards become icons on their trip. Signposts. Familiar.

The connectivity between OOH and consumer only increases, as the messaging gets closer to the street -to where a person works and plays. Guerilla marketing, street theater, wild posters (all categories in the Obies) are, if done well, nothing less than propaganda and among the strongest weapons in the marketing arsenal.

Back to the judging… Usually, there are a couple front running campaigns that dominate the field as they did in market. In years past, campaigns from Apple, Altoids and (obviously) MINI Cooper have shown well here. This time around the heir apparent was the ubiquitous and iconic campaign from Snickers. Surely, you’ve seen these oversized brown wrappers in your neck of the woods. In addition, with its colorful and controversial packaging re-design, Pepsi also had a significant presence in the show.

Did either campaign win an Obie, let alone the grand prize? Not so fast. I only said they were poised to. Frankly, my favorite campaigns came elsewhere. Besides, Best of Show voting was done by secret ballot so any number of gems could win, even a one-off, of which there were several remarkable pieces.

Enough teasing! I made a vow of secrecy to the Obies and I’m already feeling dubiously Biden-like in my chattiness! Good luck to all the entrants and I’ll see you in Arizona.

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Coochie, coochie, coochie, coo!

Cute article in the December issue of Vanity Fair, by Jim Windolf entitled Addicted to Cute. In it, the author discusses the “tsunami of cute” rolling over modern America. “We’re drowning in puppies and kittens and bunnies and cupcakes.”

Try living with three little girls, Jim.

But seriously (if serious is possible in a story like this), the author is on to something. Cuteness has become more than just the providence of young girls and their grandmothers. All one has to do is look at how many immensely popular websites are devoted to cuteness or what the keeper of YouCan’tMakeItUp called “bittersweet sadness and heart-splosioning adorablosity.” She’s talking about a collection of photos featuring small animals in casts. Kittens with leg braces!

Windolf’s essay opens with a discussion about a YouTube video called “Hahaha.” Perhaps you’ve seen it. It’s about a laughing baby. It has over 100 million views. Apparently YouTube officials showed it to Queen Elizabeth when she visited their headquarters in London. She said it was “lovely.” 100 million views? Queen Effen Elizabeth? It’s a laughing baby, folks.

Where all this gets interesting is where you least expect it. Take the phenomena of the Mini Cooper and the Smart Car. These adorable vehicles come off the assembly line smiling and America can’t get enough of them. Low gas milage? Sure. But it’s their unabashedly cute aesthetic that is driving sales.

And speaking of cars, Wildoff points to the GEICKO Gecko as a commercial manifestation of the cuteness pandemic. Over the years the popular spokes-creature has evolved from skanky reptile to adorable critter. His color has been warmed, his scales diminished and his eyes widened. Bigger eyes are a surefire marker of cuteness. Just ask the Japanese. Hello Kitty!

Finally, consider our President, Barak Obama. That smile. That gleam in his eye. All that hope! Could the guy be any cuter? Yes he could. By adding the perfect American family, right down to a dog named “Bo.” Let’s face it: the edgiest thing about our President is his skin color. Obama is the Commander in Chief of Cuteness.

So, what is up? Is cuteness backlash to the crippling financial crisis? Lord knows that’s been depressing. Is cute the antidote? Can puppies and cupcakes take our frazzled minds off staggering unemployment and underwater mortgages? Do laughing babies and big-eyed lizards placate the unemployed? Obama’s been in the Oval Office a full year. If nothing else, Cash for Clunkers was a cute idea. Public Health Care not so much.

Whether cuteness is spoiling our country or merely distracting it, we can hardly avoid its presence. Or can we? I recommend a good zombie movie. Try Dawn of the Dead, the original or remake. Of course zombies are my answer for everything.

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