TV Commercials: The best and worst of 1997

Finally, a smidgeon of respect. Or at least a lack of outright hostility. This year, commercials—the most maligned of all art forms (with the possible exception of mime)—finally got their own category at the Emmys. (The winner: HBO, for its talking-chimps spot).

Never ones to shy away from having an opinion, we’re handing out our own awards for 1997’s advertising tops and flops.

Visa Check Card ”Bob Dole” What a difference humiliating defeat makes. Postelection, Dole morphed from dour loser to huggable mensch, thanks in part to this self-deprecating Visa ad. The premise: Even the kind folk of his Kansas hometown won’t let him cash a check without proper ID. ”I just can’t win!” he sighs. Except as a pitchman.

American Express ”London” Critics might be lamenting a dip in his sitcom’s quality, but Jerry Seinfeld’s American Express ads are still Must See TV. In this superbly edited Pygmalion, the New York comic must learn to speak Brit or bomb at a London stand-up gig. Jerry pops by a soccer match, a sheep farm, and a cricket game (”That was a wicket googly!”), all to bloody good effect.

The Weather Channel ”Weather Channel Painted Faces” How to sell a channel that has all the sex appeal of aluminum siding? Gently mock it—and all the people weird enough to obsess over humidity levels. That’s the idea behind this campaign, set in a weather-themed bar. The best of the four spots shows a tube-watching fanatic with his face painted blue (he’s rooting for a cold front) and his red-painted pal (a hot-spell fan). Fresh as spring rain.

Volkswagen ”Sunday Afternoon” Sure, the car company drove this one into the ground (Spin City even spoofed it in a promo). But there’s a reason: The spot—featuring an ambiguously gay duo cruising for furniture—is a sweetly dorky way to hawk German metal. And just try to get the ”da, da, da” song out of your head.

Taco Bell ”Chihuahua” Talking-animal ads are generally wince-inducing affairs (”Kibbles ‘n Bits” ring a bell?), but this one manages to charm. The secrets: goofy close-ups of a bug-eyed Chihuahua plodding along the street and an out-of-the-blue tag line: ”Pssst…Yo quiero Taco Bell.”

The AMD-K6 Processor ”Truck” Hallmark it ain’t. Dark, disturbing, and very funny, this ad boasted the year’s densest plot: An out-of-control fuel truck barrels toward an office building. Our hero, thanks to his lightning-fast processor, shoots off an E-mail requested by his bully of a boss—who gets his when the truck careens through his window. Dilbert meets Tarantino.

Infiniti ”Half” Infiniti should get a special award just for chucking persnickety Brit spokesman Jonathan Pryce. Of the company’s new ”Own one and you’ll understand” campaign, the highlight is a darkly comic prenup parable. A divorcing man snaps ”She gets half? I’ll give her half,” then buzz-saws his piano, couch, and artwork. The one thing he can’t bring himself to touch: the Infiniti.