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Creative: critique - The Championship Season

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Though Trouble Seems About To Explode In Europe, Several Violent Images Scored At Cannes This Year
IN THIS COLUMN last week, I recounted the nightmare of a delayed Northwest flight, which devolved into a survival of the canniest, with one trapped passenger selling his Pringles for a buck a chip. Little did I know that I was foreshadowing my own return from Cannes to New York on Delta flight 0083 last Sunday.
Now, after skipping the ad festival for six years, I discovered that Cannes has a McDonald's and a Planet Hollywood (what progress!) and that for the last two years there's been a cyber-awards category. (This year's winners were mostly from Germany and San Francisco.) The Young Directors' reel has become such a draw and a major production number for Saatchi & Saatchi that Tony Kaye agreed to emerge from a coffin, gaunt and head-shaved, to illustrate the death of an old director and sing, in his own autistic style, "If You Believe in Angels." Actually, sex and death were in the air.
The ad work has improved so markedly in Brazil, Canada, South Africa and the Netherlands that it's hard to tell where it originated. French and Italian ads are still mostly awful and 10 years into the capitalist revolution, the Czech Republic can't even get a spot on the short list.
Japan's advertising this year, perhaps reflecting the sagging economy, was disappointing compared to the inspired stuff of years back, but England remained largely great.
Although the fantastic Volkswagen stuff from Boston-based Arnold Communications didn't transfer culturally (Europeans also hated The Gap ads), as a brand, Volkswagen work around the world tended to be elevated, held to the higher, simple, graphic standards of the Bernbach legacy.
My vote for the Grand Prix would have been the wordless Volkswagen Lupo campaign from Result DDB in Amsterdam. With the tagline, "It feels bigger than it is,'' spots show drivers in the smallish car afraid to park in a huge empty spot or pass a truck or drive over a bridge.
But sensing a need to vote for something more thoughtful and millennial, the jury awarded Lowe Howard-Spink, London, the Grand Prix for "Litany,'' a grimly engaging spot for The Independent newspaper. A spoken elegy against the forces of political and social repression, the ad features an announcer giving us a list of don'ts: "Don't walk at night, don't walk on the right don't be fat, don't be thin, don't be different, don't masturbate.'' Each little poetic, haiku-ish phrase is illustrated with a neatly paced black-and-white visual that matches the staccato words perfectly.
The final "don't buy, don't read,'' ends with the thud of newspapers dropping, as we see a bundle of copies of The Independent hitting the sidewalk. The problem for me was that the spot's visual intelligence was much greater than its internal logic. There was a mixed message among the don'ts that didn't add up--inveighing against right-wing reactionaries on the one hand and political correctness on the other.
You can't really have it both ways and retain meaning.
Perhaps the contradictory impulses were why the spot was not effective in selling the newspaper--but that's another story.
This sort of brutal Trainspotting sensibility in black and white invaded a lot of European spots in many categories, especially public service. Think skinheads, soccer thugs, abusive parents, war, tension, drugs.
I got the distinct feeling that there's trouble brewing throughout Europe just waiting to explode--and it was mighty unsettling. In fact, there was so much violence, even in spots trying to be funny (animals slammed against walls, people committing suicide, car accidents, dogs humping humans), that Keith Reinhard commented that the jury was careful to award such spots only when the violence was "relevant,'' such as commercials for videogames.
Speaking of relevant violence, the Outpost.com campaign from Cliff Freeman and Partners, New York, was on many lists to win the Grand Prix. It did win a gold. The Europeans loved the notion of eliminating the gladhanding American salesman and did not object to the spot showing preschoolers getting tattooed. (I did.)
My favorite Outpost.com spot was "Band,'' in which ravenous wolves were released into a stadium where a marching band was spelling out Outpost. I thought the wolves were put in digitally in post-production, but the director of the deadpan series, John O'Hagan of Hungry Man, told me that he used actual wolves (well, wolf-dog combo beasts) and a wrangler. On the field, stuntmen have meat tied to their legs under padding, and the wolves went right for it. Ouch!
Mullen, Wenham, Mass., only got a bronze for my favorite spot of the year: Monster.com. I think the problem was that some of the phrases, such as "I want a brown nose,'' were too colloquial for Europeans.
One of the surprising gold winners came from J. Walter Thompson, New York, for Kellogg's Raisin Bran Crunch. It showed a drugged-out bunch of slackers, all camped out in a small apartment, sleeping during the day. One guy sets his alarm and they all faithfully rise to have breakfast, sitting in the dark, crunching in unison.
This spot is clearly a breakout for the category, and I think the judges were actually relieved that there wasn't one bright, cheery breakfaster in the group.
But on the relevance and digital awareness fronts, few commercials got more attention than "Captain Pecker," the silver winner from Y&R Sydney produced for a gay and lesbian radio station.
I had expected an animated member, mind you, so I was surprised to see an opening shot that leaves nothing in the male genital arsenal to the imagination: pubic hair, testicles, you name it. When disco music starts playing, our little guy raises himself up and finds his voice.
A hole opens to reveal a mouth, and this phallus sings and moves cutely to the beat. The women I spoke to at the festival were madly impressed with the performance, while the men were relieved that the Captain was neither that large nor that hard.
Cultural differences aside, some things are universal.