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You Call That Groundbreaking?

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Despite a difficult economy and a killer learning curve for new media, agencies seem to have produced a bumper crop of meritorious work for this season's awards shows. Clio judges were energized; Television/Cinema/Digital jury chair Tony Granger pointed out that only 8 percent of all entries made the shortlist, and called the winners "really, really great."





D&AD juries -- which typically withhold their highest honor, the Black Pencil, if the work is not exceptional, gave out six, count 'em, six, of the fat little black writing implements, the most in the prestigious organization's 45-year history. Lest there be any doubt, the D&AD describes the standards for a Black Pencil as "a piece of work or campaign that is truly groundbreaking; the kind of work that redefines a medium."

So how exactly did "Play-Doh," for Sony's Bravia TVs, meet those exalted criteria, given that it's the third iteration of the same idea for selling "color like no other" and features Rolling Stones music first used to launch the original Apple iMac 10 years ago. And then there's the surreal appearance of hundreds of multi-hued bunnies that many bloggers immediately jumped on as an obvious "borrow'' from the Los Angeles-based artists Kozyndan.

For that matter, what's up with awarding the Black Pencil to Cadbury's "Gorilla"? Sure, it's an entertaining and smartly executed spot. In fairness, though, where's the idea, if not the connection to Cadbury? It comes down to a guy in a gorilla suit playing the drums. By those standards, America's Funniest Home Videos is enormously groundbreaking as well.

It turns out that both spots come from Fallon, London, and were created by Juan Cabral. Lest it seem that I'm piling on the very talented and hugely awarded Cabral, I'm also picking on the Grand Clio awarded to "New" Diamond Shreddies from Ogilvy & Mather, Toronto, (see sidebar) and a gold Clio in print for MTV in Argentina. Because surely work this gilded and hyped, which will no doubt also get attention at the AICP next week and Cannes in three weeks, should stand up to some additional scrutiny, no?

So, please, play devil's advocate along with me. Let's start with Sony's 200 bunnies. I'm all for no CGI and big, beautiful production numbers -- and this spot offers about the most inspired Claymation I've ever seen this side of Gumby. The trouble with these kinds of productions, however, is that often the "making of" films describing how they got hundreds of candy-colored bunnies to hop around New York City, are often more interesting than the finished spot itself. I found this to be true with all three executions, including "Balls" and "Paint."

Also, I never really got how these massive production numbers link the Sony Bravia to the "color like no other'' claim. If we take the idea of the balls or paint or the bunnies literally, there are moments in the spot when the color actually looks blurred. As with any organic form where there's beautiful handmade art involved, the color is unreliable. Certainly, this year's version is better than "Paint," which showed columns of color exploding all over a soon-to-be demolished low-income housing project in Scotland. I found the whole thing slightly violent when it didn't seem totally insensitive, especially at the end. With blue paint streaming down from the sky, the scene suggested acid rain pouring down on the rusted playgrounds of the already sadly toxic neighborhood.

Certainly, the bunnies are cuter. But they're not an original visual idea, and neither is the match of the always excellent Rolling Stones music, since Apple used it a decade ago to make the same point about color in promoting the then revolutionary iMac.

On to the gorilla for Cadbury's Dairy Milk. Here's what I genuinely love about it: The man in the primate suit is wearing a studio headset (hilarious touch). Also, the animatronic movements of the big ape's face are wonderfully human and expressive, right down to the shot of his sensitive nostrils flaring (although we can see some hair inside -- not a particularly yummy moment for selling chocolate). I like that the hairy one seems to be taking his work as an artist, drumming to Phil Collins' hit "In the Air Tonight" hyper seriously, and the song is indeed hypnotically bad.

Some context: The British chocolate company has had its share of PR nightmares in the last couple of years, including a salmonella problem, so it's understandable that Cadbury might shy away from showing the product in favor of something unexpected. And a gorilla waiting, waiting, waiting to nail Phil Collins' drum crescendo is certainly that. But as I was enjoying the video (say, the first three times), I was actually developing an aversion to the thought of eating chocolate (see hairy nostrils, above). If the spot actually sells anything, it will likely be Phil Collins records -- a careful-what-you-wish-for scenario, to be sure.

Never mind chocolate sales, you might say, this is the very definition of modern advertising: entertainment that captures your attention, something you actually want to search out on YouTube. And judging from the number of parodies posted on YouTube (including one for Wonderbra) it would seem to be a success. Yeah, except that a spot like the "Little Lad" dance for Starburst, from TBWA\Chiat\Day, for example, has spawned hundreds of parodies on YouTube as well, but also involves the product in every poster's repetition of "Berries and Cream."

Some people in the industry are pissed off because Cabral acted as writer, art director, creative director and director for "Gorilla," but I don't think that's the problem. It's a stunt, pure and simple, and a well-done one at that, but certainly not Clio gold or Black Pencil worthy.

A print campaign for MTV from Young & Rubicam in Buenos Aries, Argentina, a gold winner, also seems to be advertising the power of advertising, but in an unintentionally sad way. It compares people of true achievements, like Marie Curie, with pop stars, like Britney Spears. The graphics are great -- the choice of photos is dead on, and they're beautifully lined up. Spears is not identified, while a tiny line of type explains that Curie is "the first female recipient of the Nobel Prize." The only other marking on the page is a small MTV logo. I thought it was supposed to be a joke on the evil, pernicious ways of modern media, making people like Spears famous while we have no idea who the Nobel winners are. But it's just the opposite: The Music Television Network is so good at making pop stars (and even less talented people, like Tila Tequila) famous, that they need no introduction.

In a way, the MTV ad is an apt metaphor for awards shows in general, and the work that becomes "famous." The shows certainly serve a purpose, if only for socializing and allowing people to argue about what constitutes "groundbreaking" creative. Sure, it tends to become over self-congratulatory, especially when the same work wins in multiple categories at show after show. But, for better or worse, these are the ads our industry believes resonate most. So, in the words of Tony Granger while closing the Clios, "Take your trophies and get out of here."

The Customer Is Always Right

During one of the information sessions at the Clios, DDB U.K. executive creative director Jeremy Craigen, the jury chair for Print/ Poster/Billboard/Innovative Media/Integrated Campaigns (a freakish lumping together of categories), revealed that he initially did not like "Whopper Freakout," Crispin Porter + Bogusky's effort for Burger King, which won a gold for Integrated Campaigns. He said he had a hard time voting for anything that "took the piss out of the consumer," but was later convinced by the execution and details and came around.

I think "Whopper Freakout" is genius advertising, because it's true. Deprived of something they honestly love, people get upset. (The agency later staged it so that the King, in his costume, served the freaker-outers a Whopper on a silver platter.) It showed the power of the Whopper without making any advertising claims at all. I thought it should have won a Grand Clio.

In fact, the winner of the Grand Clio for that category was a hilarious campaign for Shreddies (a product name that sounds like a Saturday Night Live parody) from Ogilvy & Mather, Toronto. To make the cereal brand seem sexier and more exciting, the campaign renamed the dull old shredded wheat squares as punchy, pizazzy "New Diamond Shreddies." They did this by merely rotating the product a few degrees on its side, to make a diamond pattern, rather than a square one. This is very funny, and the whole campaign made fun of the industry's old-fashioned, disingenuous, "new and improved" claims, when in fact nothing had been done to the product. Video showed customers who were given the "new'' version, and said that it tasted "crispier."

Craigen said he liked this campaign, as opposed to "Whopper Freakout," because it "took the piss out of research," as opposed to the consumers. But I thought the cereal tasters were made to look far more ridiculous than Whopper lovers who were deprived of their orders. So again, the advertising is very clever and enjoyable, in an inside the industry way. But will anyone really pick up a package for breakfast because of the exceedingly witty but totally fake redesign?