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Smile When You Say That

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"Hey, guess what?" That's the innocent-sounding opener to one of three new spots just released for Crest, the Procter & Gamble product that promises "Healthy, beautiful smiles for life." Historically, toothpaste has been a category that's traditional and clinical, and often as obvious as showing the whole family brushing while staring intently into the bathroom mirror.

Thus, despite the fact that last week, in recognition of its "commitment to advance creativity and innovation,'' P&G was named Advertiser of the Year at Cannes, let's not go crazy. Dull wasn't killed in a day, and from what I've seen, that commitment rarely extends to the area of oral care. Orbit gum might be able to make fun of "dirty mouths," but that's because the woman says it with a British accent. When it comes to the actual implements of brushing, rinsing and whitening, the message is pretty damn serious.


Until "Lice," part of Crest's new campaign from Saatchi. It's the first toothpaste commercial ever to focus on the story of a parasite-infested scalp.

The spot opens on a twentysomething dude coming into his bedroom, carrying a paper bag from the pharmacy. His girlfriend is in her robe. "Guess what?'' he asks, with his refreshingly direct approach. "I have lice,'' he says, with a beaming smile, while holding up a hideous, oversized nit comb and a toxic-looking shampoo bottle. "You probably do, too.''

We're as dumfounded as the girlfriend. She manages to eke out a one-syllable "How?'' Boyfriend responds in his uniquely staccato way, "You know that new pillow?" (Cut to a shot of the pillow, a sad, squished-up thing with an ugly flower-covered case. It's quite poignant.) "I found it,'' he says. "On the street. It's infested. With lice.'' Here his inappropriate manic grin reminds me of Kenneth, the crazy page on 30 Rock. "You're disgusting,'' she says. But she's been staring at his teeth, which are not perfect veneers or blinding white Chic-lets, but normal, unassuming natural choppers that look shiny clean. "Should we take a shower?'' she asks.

Each spot ends with the tagline "You can say anything with a smile.''

It's a great payoff. From beginning to end, the spot is inventive and funny, and packed with subtle, hilarious touches. I like the use of odd-looking actors with real, uncosmetically enhanced teeth, for a start. I also appreciate the final moment before cutting to the title card, when nitman walks to the bathroom, loudly scratching the back of his head.

It's weird and dark and vaguely from some parallel universe. If it seems to have the markings of Skittles and Starburst-style situations and dialogue all over it, well, it is the first work from Gerry Graf to come out of Saatchi. Graf says it was actually sold to the client before he got there, and that the scripts were written under creative director Kerry Keenan.

In another spot, "Bulldozer," the casting of the three pre-teen boys is primo. I especially love the Indian kid. But it's the creepiest, and my least favorite of the three, because it involves a bulldozer driver explaining, with a maniacal smile, that he's knocking down the playground that the kids are riding their bikes in to build a power station. ("They make all sorts of noise and smoke -- it's exciting!" he says.) The Indian kid smiles back, but the spot seems to totter on the edge of something traumatic. Still, the way the bulldozer driver takes a beat to plaster on a smile before he starts talking is beautifully done.

The third spot, "Pre-Nup," is perfect. (All were directed by Harold Einstein, and all three are well written, cast and produced.) "What's this,'' a young blonde in casual clothing asks. Her fianc