At about 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday night, while standing in the Roosevelt Rotunda at the American Museum of Natural History on 81st Street and Central Park West, my friend Sam and I stuff an eighth of psychedelic mushrooms into egg rolls and eat them. It is time for the 2012 Clio Awards, the advertising world's version of the Oscars.
I'm nervous about tripping here. I'm not worried about the comeup, and the mindless visual wonders that come with it, especially at a place as engaging as this museum. But when coming down from mushrooms, I know that I tend to get hit with a very intense and constant wave of revelatory thoughts, all related to my personal relationships and my personal life and my future. It's like sitting through a year of therapy in a handful of hours. Maybe it's just me.
The problem is that those thoughts are always very fleeting. As reality approaches, I make frantic promises to myself—that I'll call my mother more often, work harder, and give more to my friends—that fade with sobriety. My thoughts are, in effect, punchlines—cursory promises that I can do better. And I know that in the morning, I'll feel that familiar sense of guilt.
But for now, the 100-foot Barosaurus in the rotunda just looks great, and that is all I can think about. It looks, in fact, a bit like a ladder.
8:15 p.m.: We join the crowd and walk downstairs, to the museum's IMAX Theater. To get there, we walk through the hall of North American mammals: Giant glass insets full of life-sized grizzly bears, bison, moose, and jaguars overlooking scenes out of Yellowstone. Holy shit, I think. A stranger turns to me: "This is wild!"
8:20 p.m.: Last row of the balcony, far right side. My cheeks feel flushed. There are about six different kinds of lights on the stage and they are all on and often flashing. We're about 20 feet from the balcony. Balcony is not good, I think. Balcony is a bad zone. Should I look over the balcony? Don't look over the balcony. Someone sitting in front of us says the word "Webbies." "These are our enemies," Sam says. They dim the lights.
8:22 p.m.: The giant screen onstage lights up, and there's a supercut of lots of different commercials from the past year. Throughout the show, the Clios will bill them as "golden moments." Mostly, they are brief clips from brief ads featuring people saying immediately forgettable punchlines over immediately forgettable music. It is really, really loud.
The Clio Awards, "one of the world's most recognized awards competitions honoring excellence in advertising, design and communications," date back to 1960 and are named after Clio, the Greek goddess and history muse. If you've heard of the Clio Awards before, you probably either work in advertising or have seen that Mad Men episode where Don wins a Clio.
8:26 p.m.: Joan Rivers comes out. She says she has laryngitis. Everyone thinks this is a joke, but Joan Rivers definitely has laryngitis. All anyone can do when Joan Rivers tells a joke is look at each other and groan. "Every time I see that E-Trade baby I think, where is Casey Anthony when you need her?" Joan Rivers says, and we look at each other and groan. "Oh please, that's the easy joke," Joan Rivers adds, and then we clap.
8:40 p.m.: Joan Rivers introduces a lady who talks for a long time about a man named Piyush Pandey, Executive Chairman & National Creative Director of Ogilvy & Mather India. There are so many names on the screen. Why do we need so many names? Pandey has won the Lifetime Achievement Clio. In India, the lady says, literally everyone refers to literally all chocolate as a "Cadbury" because of Piyush Pandey's commercials. We are to understand that this is a massive accomplishment. They show a video of men in India saying that they deserve the award because Pandey took all of his ideas from their lives. We are to understand that they are just kidding around. Pandey gets his award. I would like to be walking around right now.
8:50 p.m.: BBDO NY wins agency of the year. They show a supercut of BBDO NY's commercials, one of which is for FedEx and is called "Enchanted Forest." "Enchanted Forest" is like watching someone else's warped idea of a mushroom trip: There are singing frogs, bears in clothing, and faces on the trees. Then it all disappears and it's just a guy in a FedEx truck. "More electric trucks, more recycled shipping materials, and a growing number of lower-emission planes," the driver says. "Which still makes for a pretty enchanted tale."
8:55 p.m.: I really want to walk around and look at animal dioramas. Instead I am in an underground theater watching a commercial about creating a "Museum of Me" based on individual Facebook profiles. In my notebook, I accidentally refer to the commercial as the "Museum of Sitting." This was such a bad idea, I think. "Visualize yourself," the screen says, "at the end, it reveals who you are." Yes, mushrooms are funny like that. The next line in my notebook just says, "Uhhhh."
9:10 p.m.: A woman from Facebook presents an award for "integrated Facebook content." It goes to a group from Troy, Mich., that persuaded the local Tea Party to vote in favor of a budget bump to fund the local library by hosting a "book burning party." "This is just manipulation!" I whisper, or maybe yell, to Sam. Revelatory moment #1: Well, all advertising is manipulation, Emma.
9:15 p.m.: The Grand Clio, which is like Best Picture of the Clios, is awarded to Chipotle's "Back to the Start" commercial. The spot debuted during the Super Bowl this year. In it, the pigs from the American family-run farm become the pigs that come out of the American meat-processing plant. Finally, over Willie Nelson's sentimental Coldplay cover, the pigs return to the American family-run farm and end up in a Chipotle burrito. "The industrial ag guys got pretty angry about this ad," one of the producers tells us. "I'm not sure if it'll sell any burritos. But if it pisses those guys off it's a step in the right direction."
At the 1991 Clio Awards, things got weird. Clio president Bill Evans was in the midst of some kind of police investigation related to drug use, and he didn't show. The guests, who had paid $125 just to be there, stood around "drinking, schmoozing and trading rumors" for over two hours. Havoc broke out when the event caterer—standing in as master of ceremonies for the absent Evans—announced that the list of winners had gone missing. After that, in a "surreal" scene, ad execs rushed the stage and "pushed, shoved and fought each other for the remaining Clios."
This year, 21 years after what is now called "The Most Bizarre Event in Advertising History," Seth Stevenson wrote for Slate that "earnest do-goodery won the day."
"This seemed to be a year for honoring positive intentions above all else," he wrote. "As the old advertising landscape continues to crumble, replaced by infant behemoths like Facebook and by confusing multimedia hijinx, perhaps ad creatives are yearning to find social meaning within their work in order to keep themselves tethered amid the chaos."
9:20 p.m.: Another Grand Clio—this one for "innovative media"—is awarded to the Memac Ogilvy Label for "The Return of Dictator Ben Ali." The agency hung a giant portrait of the country's recently ousted dictator in a public square. Outraged citizens tore it down, revealing a sign that read, "Beware, dictatorship can return On Oct. 23rd, VOTE." This is the first sentimental commercial that does not have sentimental music attached to it.
9:25 p.m.: They give out "honorary" awards to chef personality Anthony Bourdain and photographer Annie Leibovitz. They show a video montage of Bourdain eating food and a slideshow of Leibovitz's photographs. The slideshow has the same sentimental piano music that all of the sentimental commercials we've watched have already used. Her presenter is kind of tearing up when he says her name. Annie Leibovitz takes her shiny trophy and says into the microphone, "I was hoping it would be gold—that way I could have melted it down. Well, maybe I still can." This strikes me as a very sad moment for both the Clios and Leibovitz, and a very funny moment for me. Revelatory moment #2: Annie Leibovitz surely does not want to be here right now. Revelatory moment #3: Annie Leibovitz has surely eaten mushrooms before and surely knows what I am going through right now, and maybe we can bond about it in the whale room. Revelatory moment #4: Haha that is a terrible idea.
9:35 p.m.: Joan Rivers says something like, "Get the fuck out of here!" and I am already halfway down the stairs. Walking. Revelatory moment #5: Walking is way better than sitting.
9:40 p.m.: We are going to the Hall of Ocean Life, where a 94-foot long model of a blue whale hangs from the ceiling, for the reception. We are going to the whale room. We are going to the whale room.
9:42 p.m.: I send a text message to my editor, A.J. The text reads, "Oh my god we are in the whale room."
9:50 p.m.: The whale room is bathed in red light, and filled with black leather couches. As we walk down the stairs, it crosses my mind that it is like we are descending into hell, but not really, just play it cool, Emma. All of the couches are empty, though, because they are reserved for people like Joan Rivers, Anthony Bourdain, and Annie Leibovitz. There are even Clio volunteers standing around the couches, making sure that no one but Joan Rivers, Anthony Bourdain, and Annie Leibovitz sits on them, even though the couches are empty. Revelatory moment #6: Empty couches are useless and pretty indulgent, really.
9:55 p.m.: I run almost directly into a girl who went to my high school and whose father taught me in 12th grade social studies. She's won an award. "What are you doing here?" she asks. "I'm just here," I tell her.
10:00 p.m.: We retreat to a far corner, free of high school classmates, and filled with the giant squid attacking the giant whale. "Was I weird?" I ask Sam. "I was so weird." There is no time to dwell on the being weird, though, because there is a giant squid attacking a giant whale in front of us, and there does not appear to be glass between us and the giant squid attacking the giant whale, which seems like either a miracle or a hallucination. We debate whether or not to reach out to see if there's glass, and finally do. Revelatory moment #7: There is no glass.
10:10 p.m.: I eat a piece of pork with some kind of sauce on it on a paper plate. There are no commercials playing anymore, but there is a crowd at a back table, where they're handing out statues to the winners. MGMT is playing.
10:20 p.m.: We need a break from the red light and the high school run-ins and the very loud MGMT soundtrack and the squid. We sit in the fake forest for a while and I take pictures of some fake lemurs, or something like that, that are staring at us from above. "Look, there's a lizard," Sam points out. We stare at the lizard.
10:28 p.m.: One more walk into the whale room. The red light is now more menacing than ever. "Is it time to go?" I ask Sam.
10:30 p.m.: We're walking out of the model lizard room and there's a video projected on the far wall. A badger, or something like that, is getting attacked by another badger-like animal, and is dying. The video has subtitles, and the only subtitle we read before collapsing into a heap of horrified laughter is: "Eventually, all are destined to die."
10:31 p.m.: Revelatory moment #8: Mortality mortality mortality holy shit death man we're all gonna die and that's crazy and I really need a cigarette right now preferably one that contains weed and I guess I am really starting to trip now huh.
10:35 – 3 a.m.: There's a school of raccoons in Central Park. A school? A pack? The park is covered in smog and there's lightning overhead and every building looks like the greatest building I have ever seen in my life. New York, you look good. We climb a rock and look at buildings and walk by the Plaza, where Eva Longoria is in a gown on a red carpet and everyone is chanting her name, and then get in a cab for the longest 15 minutes of my life, during which I race through about 500 chaotic, revelatory thoughts, all of which can basically be boiled down to the need to be a better friend, daughter, sister, worker, and human in everyday life, and when I get home I sit on the fire escape in my dress and smoke a cigarette and stare at leaves and consider, for a very brief moment at least, the fact that I'll feel completely different when the sheen is gone in the morning. Revelatory moment #509: This could be in a commercial.
Image by Jim Cooke.