Barbara Lippert’s Critique

Open on thousands of ad people from around the world crammed into the auditoriums of the Grand Palais in Cannes. Dressed up for the festival finale, the Saturday TV award show, they are hooting and hissing at the screen. Which commercial, exactly, is so offensive, so horrifyingly boring, clichéd or cloying that it needs to be whistled at? It’s a quiet spot for Doctors Without Borders, with the delicate visual meta phor of a map of Albania, Macedonia and Kosovo stitched on a human body, with the borders as scars.

Did they find it a cheap political shot? Too manipulative? Too do-gooder? It’s a mystery to me. I could un der stand the crowd hooting the mayor of Cannes off the stage, but the reaction to this spot registers right up there on the cruel-o-meter.

Given the Cannes crowd’s famous hatred of sentimentality, I expected a Leo Burnett silver winner for Disney to be similarly trounced. It shows a couple in bed, the wife complaining that the husband doesn’t talk to her in that “special way” anymore. By the end of the spot, the pajama-clad hubby works up an “I love you” in a Donald Duck voice. It got applauded.

Welcome to judgment at Cannes, land of sun and paradox.

Apparently, the crowd appreciated the craftsmanship of the spot and the great performances that director Joe Pytka got from the actors. But Nike’s in spired “Free style” basketball spot was considered too run-of-the-mill, too overproduced to get any prize.

The judges and the audience loved the white-NBA-wanna bes campaign, from Cliff Freeman and Partners for Fox Sports Net, which got a gold. Actually, that campaign and Cliff Free man’s Grand Prix-winning Fox Regional Sports Report spots making fun of foreign sports, do fit with what was popular this year: cheap and ugly-looking, ill-lit, underproduced video, featuring extreme comedy of the mean. As Alan and Jerome, the white guys who get digitized into NBA games for Fox, might put it, “These spots be illin’.” There are actually 60 versions of these NBA spots (because Fox Sports Net only has local broadcast rights for the NBA), with the opening paraphernalia and the closing title cards changed for each. No wonder they were done fast and dirty (a film editor pointed out that Alan’s arm is missing for six frames in one spot).

By those standards (spots that don’t cost an arm and a leg, so to speak), you’d think the crowd would have eaten up the gold-winning L.A. Dodgers stuff, from Wong Doody in Los Angeles. It features bad video of a crazed fan bringing his contrarian attitude to regular situations. They hated it. I guess they have no interest in that aspect of American culture (i.e., white baseball fanatics). I’ve never seen so many dreadlocked Scandinavian home boys getting down with their bad selves.

In general it wasn’t a great year for the U.S. at Cannes. Some of that had to do with the actors strike, which stopped much production and otherwise restricted new work.

“Low Riders” (at left), for the San Francisco Jazz Festival, a gold winner from Butler, Shine & Stern, was also quintessentially American, and it synthesized most of the winning components of your basic U.S. entry this year (ex cept for the mean parts). It’s low- to no-budget (no body in volved got a fee), and agency president Greg Stern told me he had to call off the pickets by explaining that this was pro bono work. It shows a white guy, a Latino and an African American cruising in their ’65 Chevy Impala. They sit back and listen to a mellow jazz track. When they see a yuppie pedestrian, they switch to rap and the postures that go with it.

Contrast that knowing reversal of stereotypes with a European version of music promotion: One print winner from Spain touted an African-music festival with a portrait of a Ubangi woman with a CD through her lip.

Sensitivity training, anyone? In the end, despite the cultural differences and paradoxes inherent at Cannes, the judges and audiences favored the same work (Fox Sports Net) that had won at the other festivals. Ag gressively non-P.C., it re veals a universal truth: We laugh when a Turkish cliff diver goes splat.