In keeping with the decidedly anti-recovery nature of the culture, eight out of ten Americans were staying up later than they had in years. By the night of the final awards show, they were bumming cigarettes and knocking back champagne as if it was Snapple iced tea. Which was just as well, since a considerable number of smart and artful American entries earned zilch, zippo, bupkis, while "x," a deeply untouching Spanish spot for cleansing wipes, won a gold.
Indeed, the awards ceremony on June 26 was not an evening for the faint of heart or the politically correct. Subject-wise, this was the year of dead fish, condoms, the Pope, and the final cinematic taboo: exploding gastro-intestinal tracts. (In all, about a half-dozen spots relied on that same gassy joke.) All done with a visual edge, of course.
Pope jokes came from every country. One from German agency Jung/ Von Matt for Jean Pascale clothing, called "Holy Father," opens on St. Peter's Square on a Sunday morning. The crowd waits for the Pope, but he's missing. Priests search frantically for him. Finally, he's found admiring himself in front of a mirror, wearing a snappy red skirt and blouse.
The spot, directed by Britain's Theo Delaney, may have been the first case of crosscultural cross-dressing. Perhaps there are so many spots involving priests, nuns and the Pope because the Catholic Church is the only awe-inspiring institution that hasn't crumbled, unlike the Royal Family and the Soviet Union. Even Madonna--or last year's Grand Prix winner, with nuns who fixed a cherub's penis--couldn't kill it.
So what was different about the festival at 407 (Cannes was rounded in 1954 to celebrate European cinema advertising, then moved on to television, and now also includes print.) No one would know it by the number of attendees taking calls on their cellular phones along the Croisette, but the festival lost money this year. There was grumbling about the cost. It was a lot less Eurocentric and much more about emerging ad nations and Asians. (The Korean delegates outnumbered the Brits, but turned out to be mystery guests-lost in Cannes and no-shows for the final awards dinner.) The strangest cultural artifact was a spot from Punto Ogilvy & Mather, called "Blab Blab Blab," that urged Uruguayans to talk less. A spot from BSB/Oslo advertised a law protecting Norwegians against unfair TV commercials. And there were great spots for Greenpeace and anti-fascism and anti-racism messages, from Brazil, Holland and Germany.
The biggest difference was an infusion of youth. It started last year with a group of young creatives from Bozell/Holland who call themselves the Young Hotdogs. They arrived by bus, camped out, stayed only four days and attended the screenings for reduced fees. This year, a similar French group named The Pirates held an alternative award show. (A student group from Spain, backed by three sponsors, perhaps best illustrated the future of advertising award shows: get sponsors to sponsor your attendance.)
The renegades offered a different kind of creative energy. TV advertising is relatively new in countries like Holland, where the advent of cable and commercial television is changing everything. These kids are charged up with a sort of '60s Doyle Dane Bernbach intensity, as interpreted through the non-verbal prism of MTV. As for the old guard, a greater number of attendees went to the screenings, but their reaction was more muted than usual.
At the awards show, festival president Roger Hatchuel explained the old guys' lukewarm reaction to the screenings by saying there's more "humility, more maturity," in an industry that has weathered "the toughest economic crisis since World War II. Those remaining at their desks have worked harder than ever and have more respect for their peers."
That was not the case a few minutes later, when the winners were announced. A strangely poignant AIDS awareness spot from Japan, featuring a poor little mute animated arrow who cries (the Marcel Marceau of line drawings), got a gold for public service--and swiftly was booed, hooted and generally buried. The hall erupted similarly when a spot directed by Federico Fellini for Banca di Roma was also awarded a gold. It involved a man in a tree who was having a dream and talking to his shrink. Filled with wonderful references to Fellini movies, the spot proved to be terrible advertising.
Yet another execrable gold winner from Spain depicted various abandoned yuppie hombres, home alone and suffering. (Spain won five golds--apparently there is an antiBritish bloc of Latin voters, who pave the way for winners from Brazil, Spain, Italy and other non-stiff-upper-lip countries.) In the spot, one little boy says, "Mommy, come home. I'm hungry and Daddy's worthless." It turns out that all the women have gone to a Galerias department store sale. Obviously, those looking for feminist breakthroughs should have stayed home.
A spot for Peroni beer, from Show Up/ Milan, showed a groom walking down the aisle with his blond, bustiered bride. Once they get to the altar, the priest speaks of "the blond you dream of giving you a lifetime of euphoria and sparkling pleasure." The groom kisses the bride, who turns into a long-necked bottle of Peroni.
This retro attitude carried through to the staging of the awards show. A friend couldn't decide which was more amusing: the French accent sported by jury chief Ed Wax or the fact he was surrounded during the ceremonies by sashaying French babe presenters.
In keeping with the weakening worldwide economy, the sensibility this year seemed to be anti-giant-production number and anti-big cost. That might explain why a spot for a product as humble and quotidian as Japanese instant noodles, from Hakuhodo Tokyo, won the Grand Prix. Apparently, it was the jury's second favorite, trailing "New York, New York," the American-made spot for the Coalition for the Homeless that won a gold. But because "New York, New York" was done as a public service commercial, it was ruled out for the big one.
The Hakuhodo work shows tiny tribesmen chasing a giant extinct ostrich (a moa) until they fall off a cliff. The computer-generated imagery combines elements of Coke's polar bears with Apple's lemmings, although the polar bears are passive and lumbering couch potatoes of the tundra, while this ostrich fellow has feet as nimble as Jackie Gleason's. It also ties into the Jurassic Park yearning for watching supercollider-sized ancient killer beings come to life. At bottom, it's Godzilla Lite, Japanese creatures stripped of any remaining national memory of war or nuclear fallout. The spots end with the single word "Hungry?" placed on the screen. It's in the same typeface that artist Barbara Kruger uses to make ironic comments about our hyper-consumer culture. The word "HUNGRY!" is repeated in a caveman/Ninja voiceover, like a steroided war cry.
All that lightheartedness about hunger was an interesting juxtaposition to the Coalition for the Homeless spot, which won the One Show in New York and earned a gold and a standing ovation at Cannes. Working independently, the guerilla creative team (Peter Cohen, Leslie Sweet, and director Laura Belsey) chipped in $3,000 apiece and drove around New York City in a van, finding homeless people and giving them cue cards with the "Start spreadin' the news" lyrics. Each was recorded singing the whole song; the team made 50 rough cuts and 100 edits to get it to the point where each person picks up a different verse perfectly. Belsey, an NYU film school graduate, said she "framed it wide, so that it would be respectful, not manipulative and in their faces." The irony of the lyrics were not lost on these people; one man's throat catches, and he has to stop and wipe his face.
Indeed, what breaks through at this international advertising festival is strictly visual. It's a place where directors are stars. The hugest is Joe Pytka, who won the Palme d'Or (given to the production company with the greatest number of awards) for the second time. His low-budget work for the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, by L.A. agency Stein Robaire Helm, won a gold. One spot shows an inspired static image of a suburban lawn being mowed; another is of a TV dinner with a fork diving into industrialstrength turkey and gravy, gloppy powdered mashed potatoes and lima beans. The tagline on both: "This is life. That's why there's art." The tedium is the message, and the spots are brilliant.
Pytka also won a gold for a Nike international spot and a silver for Pepsi. All of his images are beautiful, but it was obvious at the festival that Pytka is the director with the greatest breadth and depth (and longest mane). Rising star Tarsem says, "Joe's the best. He's won so many lions he's beginning to look like one." At the Saatchi & Saatchi New Directors Showcase, a popular seminar that spotlights the work of up and comers who've been directing for just a few years, Harvey Hoffenberg pointed out that the difference now is that "a surprising number come from film school. With perhaps a stop at music videos along the way, many film school graduates are going directly into commercials, not features. Not so many years ago it seemed that most directors were coming from still photography and agency art direction."
The New Directors reel was visually stimulating, far more interesting than the short list. But what hit Pytka about it was that there was "no emotion. It was all technically driven--as if these kids just sit in a room watching MTV all day. I don't remember one performance. I missed the human factor."
Pytka did acknowledge "there's a whole new breed of guys becoming good directors almost half a generation ahead of when we did. There were no film schools when I started (working in a lab developing film for a news station). In those days, you went to college, then went to study film. It's astonishing that guys that young could have that kind of skill."
He was referring to Tarsem's work for Smirnoff Vodka (from Lowe Howard-Spink/London), which won a gold and also was picked by the journalists in attendance as the best spot. The 31-year-old Tarsem (who's represented by Spots Films) is best remembered as the guy in the turban and full Indian regalia who picked up all the awards at the MTV ceremony for the "Losing My Religion" video--a clip he directed for R.E.M. when he was just out of film school.
His story is the stuff of mythic global villages: He grew up as a Sikh in the Punjab in India, without television or advertising. As a kid, he occasionally saw American movies in the Himalayas, he said, but "they'd get the order of the reels all wrong." He got to the U.S. by lying to his father about earning an MBA at Harvard and enrolled in film school in L.A. under somebody else's name. He directed the electrifying "Swimmer" spot for British Levi's (the guy jumping from pool to pool in an early '60s L.A. setting, to the tune of Diana Washington singing Cole Porter's "Mad About the Boy.") Tarsem works with his Indian girlfriend, another one-named person, Fatima, and credits her for all the styling and art directing innovations in his work.
The Smirnoff commercial is visually astounding. Called "Message in a Bottle," it's set on on an art deco ship. As the clear Smirnoff bottle passes through each eccentric tableau, the scene turns surreal. Against a backdrop of deep, saturated colors, a dreadlocked model turns into a Medusa, a cat turns into a tiger, a pillowy, middleaged woman becomes a dominatrix, complete with whip. (Cats and dominatrixes are big in Tarsem's work. It's a good thing the images are so rich and quick--there's nothing worse than an overworked dominatrix.) The images are Biblical and mythic, as interpreted by an up-to-the-minute eye; they're retinally smarter than can be described in words. It's fin de siecle advertising--fast, lush, cold and decadent. That's one man's cross-cultural turban renewal.
It's clear the trouble with Cannes is all in the corrupt, parochial, my-country-first judging. Surely, there is interesting new work out there. The visuals will lead the renewal. Because the up-and-coming raised-on-video generation sure knows a powerful image--and a bad gas joke-- when it sees one.
Copyright Adweek L.P. (1993)