Bill Clinton Urges Ad Industry to Lead Global Change Through Creativity

Speaking in Cannes, he also reveals his favorite TV spots

CANNES, France—In a speech here Thursday, Bill Clinton implored the advertising industry to use its formidable powers of communication and persuasion to get the world to understand, and thus help solve, its most pressing problems.

Entering a packed house in the Palais des Festivals to a standing ovation, the former U.S. president, 65, broadly painted the picture of an uncertain future—one of great promise and excitement, but also great peril—and argued that the privileged nations and classes must seize the moment and use their intelligence, resources and creativity to bend the world in a positive direction.

"The world, as we know, has a lot of problems. But we're fortunate to be alive at this time," he said. Seeing the crowd so full of young people, he added that he would trade places with any of them in a second. "I wish I could be 20 again," he said. "I would take my chances on not being president just to see what happens."

In a detailed and impassioned if low-key speech, Clinton, himself a global change agent through his work at the Clinton Global Initiative, outlined a wide range of political, financial and environmental problems facing the world—everything from the European economic crisis to the melting polar ice caps. He then called on those in media and advertising to create transcendent messaging that would help explain the world's problems, and potential solutions, to an often unbelieving or hopeless population—and give people the energy and information they need to overcome obstacles and embrace a stable and equitable tomorrow.

"We can do this," he said. "But we need people like you to fire our imagination and fill our brains as well as our hearts. You know how to overcome people's inherent resistance to hearing a set of facts they hadn't imagined were true, yet are," he added—having spent several moments earlier inveighing against the climate-change unbelievers.

He added: "I urge you to think about how you can both do well and do good. And I urge you to think about how we can build a world of shared prosperity and shared responsibilities, not constant conflict and winner take all."

At one point during the speech, Clinton happened to reveal his favorite American ad campaign currently on TV—and even did a little impromptu copywriting for it. In discussing instability in the world, he remarked on the DirecTV ad campaign from Grey in New York—a portrait of chaos if ever there was one—and said he loved the dark humor in it.

"My favorite ads in the United States are those ads encouraging people to switch from cable to DirecTV," he said, as the crowd laughed. "You have a problem. Something disastrous happens. You don't get along with your daughter. She winds up having an alternative lifestyle, marries a guy with too many tattoos. She ends up having a child who wears a dog collar. Now, you have a granddaughter with a dog collar. Switch to DirecTV. … They're the most hilarious ads I've ever seen."

He was evidently referring to this spot. (It's actually a grandson with a dog collar, but at least he remembers the brand.) The Grey campaign is actually in the running in the Film Lions contest here in Cannes this year—many jurors from which were surely in attendance tonight to hear the presidential endorsement.

Grey spokesman Owen Dougherty said the agency was flattered by the mention. "Probably no world leader other than Churchill has seen more ups and downs in life, and he has always triumphed with grace and humor," he said. "His kind words about our DirecTV ads are icing on the cake of our Cannes wins."

The speech, though—presented by Grupo ABC, which contributes to the Clinton Global Initiative—was about not thinking of advertising as frivolous at all. Clinton exhorted ad people to take a grand view of their business, and realize the power they wield in affecting the future of the planet.

"Since it will increasingly be a world of consent, as all the upheaval in the Middle East and North Africa has shown, the communicators will have a profound influence on how the next 20 or 30 years turns out," he said. "I want to leave this earth knowing that my daughter and the grandchildren I hope to have will live in a world where our common humanity matters more than our interesting differences. … And I can't think of any other group of people more likely to make it happen than you."

He added: "And if you make people laugh, like the DirecTV ads, that's OK too."