Cannes Contenders

Coded messages, clandestine missions, even a scheduled appearance by former prime-time president Martin Sheen. Welcome to Cannes 2006—where serving time in the jury room can get very, very heated. (We hope that most of the explosions remain on screen, not in the Gutter Bar.) Given that this year there are so many entries and so little time, let’s get right down to the contenders for the Grand Prix. There are quite a few really big spots.

“My god, it’s big,” sings a team of Monty Pythonesque warriors on the run. “We can’t believe how big it is!” And, for once, they’re not referring to some macho burger with cheese. Instead, the words are part of “Big Ad,” a charming commercial for Carlton Draught from George Patterson Young & Rubicam in Melbourne, Australia, that shows a “bloody huge” retinue of men in yellow and red robes singing their way into battle. The music is O Fortuna from Carmina Burana, except that the lyrics have been turned into a self-referential revery about the big, expensive ad the cast of thousands is in the middle of making. It’s a gathering of epic proportions, but in this case it turns out that the teeming throngs come together not to plunder, but to parody: In an homage to the famous British Airways “Face” ad, they form a profile of a 60-foot man (give or take) with his outer body made up of the crimson-robed soldiers, while the men in yellow form a perhaps too-graphic graphic of the golden stream of Carlton Draught as it swishes down the guy’s alimentary canal and into his gut.

Crowd-based humor is always big at Cannes, as are giant production numbers. But while the spot is a surprise, a hoot and delightfully produced, it will probably earn a gold, not the Grand Prix. Parodies of big commercials are fun, but the endless loop of advertising-about-advertising gets a bit static, and this commercial about the making of the commercial while looking back at another award-winning commercial does it double. There’s no idea here that moves the industry forward. It’s an entertaining placeholder, though.

Another top contender, for the Sony Bravia LCD screen (Fallon London), could also legitimately be called a crowd scene with balls. In this case, 250,000 wildly colored bouncy balls were shot out of 10 cannons and then filmed, floating to the ground in San Francisco. (Yes, I know. Let’s take a moment to laugh at the concept of the jumping balls of San Francisco.) The result is a lush visual that’s watchable again and again—hypnotic for the retinas. The balls form their own aerial patterns and pool randomly in the streets. It also has wonderful music. With its gentle and slow rhythms (and occasional shots of old trucks parked on the street) the spot is lulling, and even suggests some distant nostalgia for childhood, or the simplicity of life before technology. And that’s where, strategically, it seems to fall apart. Since there’s no CG involved—part of the beauty of the concept—as with any natural or organic form, the color is unreliable, even fuzzy at times. And that’s odd, since it’s selling a sophisticated LCD system. “Colour. Like. No. Other.” Is the tagline. As. If. The. Periods. Made. A. Definitive. Difference. But definite gold.

Of course, the Honda spots from Wieden + Kennedy London have won for the past two years. I’ve written about this year’s Clio winner, “The Impossible Dream,” starring a modern-day Don Quixote riding every possible form of Honda transportation, from monkey bike to race car to aerial balloon. It’s moving and beautiful and over-the-top, but the haunting sadness of a character like the Don (and the added wistfulness of the music) makes it a bit of a downer. There’s another in the series in which a huge choir, using only their faces, lips and hands as instruments, brilliantly mimics every sound the car makes, from ignition, through tightly taking the curves of a tunnel, through the sun roof opening, moving smoothly over cobblestones, to being covered in rain and snow. It’s an irresistible spot and technically brilliant, but doesn’t say anything unique about the brand, except that this is a really cool commercial.

So my choice for the biggie is “noitulovE” for Guinness, from AMV BBDO London. Guinness has a history of fabulous advertising, but this outdelivers all. The name is evolution in reverse, and that’s exactly what happens, as we watch three beer drinkers literally step back in time, from pub to swamp (with several million years brilliantly brought to life and squeezed into 50 seconds). Meanwhile, it’s set to the unexpected but rollicking beat of The Rhythm of Life from Sweet Charity, sung by none other than the swingingest cat around at the time, Sammy Davis Jr. (One TV trend this year is fantastic music.) The editing perfectly matches the beat; perhaps creationists would see it differently if they could watch science and history meld, all the way back to pond scum, as explained by this outrageously clever use of mixed media (animation, film, stop motion) as narrated by the Candy Man.

There’s also an artful link to the brand—one of the mud-skippers takes a tongueful of brown liquid pooling in the swamp and lets out a prehistoric burp as we see the tagline, “Good things come to those who wait.”

Speaking of which, you’re saying, hey, we Americans ponied up beaucoup bucks to enter this thing and are meanwhile forced to partake in this lavish south-of-France lifestyle, plus we’re supposed to attend four awards shows and maybe, during daylight, even a client meeting or two, so what are we bringing home?

Here comes the dark horse: Microsoft’s Xbox 360 “Jump Rope” from McCann Erickson San Francisco and 72andSunny, which just won Best in Show and the Mosaic award for diversity at the Addys. This will go over big in the jury room—it’s all visual, no language. Indeed, whatever our current politics, the rest of the world is drawn to American culture, especially “urban” culture, and this is as authentic as it gets, both from the technical end (no tricks, no CG, all done in camera in one shot, which is truly miraculous) and in casting. Two of the women jumpers are part of a group of champions (Doubledutchdivas.com) who started out as little-girl contenders and are still performing in their 50s.

Set on a playground in New York’s Lower East Side, it’s dazzling in its naturalness, as a range of people of all sizes and colors (including the NBA’s Ben Sherman) jump in, ride, somersault or just run through the mesmerizing turn of the ropes. As with some of the best Apple spots, it’s the counterintuitive anti-tech response to selling the latest piece of technology. The music, George Kranz’s Din Daa Daa, which is early German break-dancing stuff, could not be any cooler.

Actually, we’re going to take one quick side trip to Thailand, where an even darker horse is a continuing series for Smooth E cream. In the last decade or so, advertising seems to have become Thailand’s civic religion—the work coming from Bangkok agencies is American-grade. The name sounds like a parody, but the Smooth E “Love Story” from JEH United, Bangkok, is a continuing series that got the population to tune in for new episodes week after week. A classic soap opera (selling soap), it’s the story of an ugly-duckling adolescent tomboy who turns into a fox with the help of a hard-sell saleslady in a beauty shop. It could be hackneyed, except it’s filled with funny details, like the fact that the salesperson keeps reappearing like a bad pimple, getting erased or removed from the screen, over and over. This does not stop her from reappearing to say, “Thank you, and please buy our product.” (She also convinces our heroine to change by revealing that she used to be a man.)

As for the rest of the American contenders for gold, I’m betting on Ameriquest’s “Doctor” and “Friendly Skies” from DDB Los Angeles, showing shocking scenarios (particularly the latter, which reveals a female passenger spread-eagled over some random man on a plane flight as the lights come on).

The Starburst work from TBWA\Chiat\Day New York has the off-kilter sensibility that might just be crowd-pleasing. One of the darkest contains probably the most hilarious opening line ever delivered: “Aren’t you Ernie, the klepto?” asks the earnest teen, walking his bike, of Ernie, who looks freakier than Steve Buscemi. Through the course of their conversation, Ernie, who says he doesn’t do that anymore, strips the dude of everything, including his shirt.

The agency’s work for Skittles should be silver-worthy, at least. The tiny superintendent hanging from the ceiling to stop a Skittles leak is funny. But the real oddball contender features an unexpected appendage: a moving beard that can pick up the rainbow- colored candy and toss it into the wearer’s mouth as he goes through the paces of a boring job interview. (He also uses it to stroke the interviewer when she seems to be going negative.) It’s weird and phallic and off- putting and hilarious, but again, anything can happen in a jury room.

In the press competition, TBWA\Paris will probably win the top prize, again, for its PlayStation 2 ad showing the scary Hieronymus Bosch-like interior of an average gamer’s head. A mind is a terrible thing to waste, especially when filled with this much unsettling minutiae.

On a much more serious (and life-saving) note, a spot from Leo Burnett London for Teenage Road Safety has been heavily awarded at other shows in the public service category. It’s all recorded on camera phone by actual kids, including the shock of an accident caused by not paying attention while chattering away. It’s about as visceral as you get.

I also think the FedEx “Stick” spot will earn a gold. Though we’ve got lots of caveman jokes floating around, this one sets a high bar (not for historical accuracy, mind you, since Cro-Magnons never lived with dinosaurs, but then again, they didn’t have offices with do-nothing bosses, either). This should win for writing, production and unexpected death by tyrannosaurus.

Two thousand years after its invention, radio was introduced last year as a category at Cannes, and not unexpectedly, Budweiser’s “Real Men of Genius” from DDB Chicago raked in several prizes. I think, despite its familiarity, it will win again this year, as the writing remains stellar. This year’s contenders seem to have moved from the men who invent the genius items to the men who merely partake in them (in nosebleed seats and applying heavy sunscreen, for example). But the characters have not lost a drop of their dimensions or poignancy, and year after year, that should be rewarded.

Meanwhile, in terms of integrated outdoor campaigns, and in this year of the FIFA World Cup, Adidas and TBWA\Whybin (Auckland, New Zealand) have invented a way for soccer fans to “Be the ball.” They can literally sit inside the signature black-and-white ball (actually a weather balloon on bungee cords) as it rockets up in the air at the equivalent speed as if it had been launched by Liverpool captain and English team member Steven Gerrard. A giant billboard of him in action sits in front of the ball, so it gives the impression he’s giving it a kick. The film of the fans screaming inside the ball is pretty entertaining.

I’m not sure which category it will be entered in, but I do think that Axe Dry’s “Gamekillers” series is certainly Titanium- worthy. Based on an ad campaign from Bartle Bogle Hegarty, @radical.media developed a one-hour special that aired on MTV (and the The Comedy Network in Canada). It’s filled with caricatures of certified pains who come along and ruin any guy’s date—such as British Accent Guy, who impresses women with his phony accent, and Early Man, the most macho of bullies.

I think it’s more evolved than the brother-brand Lynx’s Lynxjet work from Lowe Hunt in Australia that’s getting a ton of buzz. The Australian effort creates an Austin Powers-like fake jet with a preferred member’s program called “The Mile High Club.” The call buttons present options for “Spanking, Hula Hoop or Pillow Fight.” There’s no talk of the product—just straight sex (the tagline is the very subtle “Get on, get off”). But the judges never seem to get tired of such sexed-up creations.

Another strong Australian contender is Virgin Mobile (from Host and The Glue Society). It’s a stealth campaign that started innocently enough last September when Jason Donovan, a D-list celebrity best known as inventor of the mullet, placed his Virgin mobile phone number on a for-sale sign on his car window. As soon as the photo hit the blogosphere, the former star was inundated with prank calls and started to complain. Richard Branson himself made a plea for restraint in an ad that said, “Do not call or text 403JasonD.” The stunt resulted in huge awareness for Virgin, and a career revival for Donovan.

Meanwhile, did someone say “search engine questions?” Another contender for Titanium is Japan’s Goo.com campaign from Dentsu, which actively redefined the idea of community. Apparently, 80 percent of commuters in Tokyo and Osaka take the subway, so the agency plastered the station walls with hand-written ads, which were changed daily—a Herculean effort. The ads then invited the interested to assemble at key points in the city to take part in the question-of-the-week challenge (the answers were obtainable only via search engine) using their mobile phones and PDAs to participate. It resulted in huge gatherings of humanity at weird times and in weird locations, (in addition to such mainstays as Tokyo’s Shibuya district) texting to win a Goo-sponsored competition. And we all know that there’s nothing that Cannes jurors love more than a charged-up crowd on an advertising mission.