You Call That Groundbreaking?

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Despite a difficult economy and a killer learning curve for new media, agencies seem to have produced a bumper crop of meritorious work for this season’s awards shows. Clio judges were energized; Television/Cinema/Digital jury chair Tony Granger pointed out that only 8 percent of all entries made the shortlist, and called the winners “really, really great.”

D&AD juries — which typically withhold their highest honor, the Black Pencil, if the work is not exceptional, gave out six, count ’em, six, of the fat little black writing implements, the most in the prestigious organization’s 45-year history. Lest there be any doubt, the D&AD describes the standards for a Black Pencil as “a piece of work or campaign that is truly groundbreaking; the kind of work that redefines a medium.”

So how exactly did “Play-Doh,” for Sony’s Bravia TVs, meet those exalted criteria, given that it’s the third iteration of the same idea for selling “color like no other” and features Rolling Stones music first used to launch the original Apple iMac 10 years ago. And then there’s the surreal appearance of hundreds of multi-hued bunnies that many bloggers immediately jumped on as an obvious “borrow” from the Los Angeles-based artists Kozyndan.

For that matter, what’s up with awarding the Black Pencil to Cadbury’s “Gorilla”? Sure, it’s an entertaining and smartly executed spot. In fairness, though, where’s the idea, if not the connection to Cadbury? It comes down to a guy in a gorilla suit playing the drums. By those standards, America’s Funniest Home Videos is enormously groundbreaking as well.

It turns out that both spots come from Fallon, London, and were created by Juan Cabral. Lest it seem that I’m piling on the very talented and hugely awarded Cabral, I’m also picking on the Grand Clio awarded to “New” Diamond Shreddies from Ogilvy & Mather, Toronto, (see sidebar) and a gold Clio in print for MTV in Argentina. Because surely work this gilded and hyped, which will no doubt also get attention at the AICP next week and Cannes in three weeks, should stand up to some additional scrutiny, no?

So, please, play devil’s advocate along with me. Let’s start with Sony’s 200 bunnies. I’m all for no CGI and big, beautiful production numbers — and this spot offers about the most inspired Claymation I’ve ever seen this side of Gumby. The trouble with these kinds of productions, however, is that often the “making of” films describing how they got hundreds of candy-colored bunnies to hop around New York City, are often more interesting than the finished spot itself. I found this to be true with all three executions, including “Balls” and “Paint.”

Also, I never really got how these massive production numbers link the Sony Bravia to the “color like no other” claim. If we take the idea of the balls or paint or the bunnies literally, there are moments in the spot when the color actually looks blurred. As with any organic form where there’s beautiful handmade art involved, the color is unreliable. Certainly, this year’s version is better than “Paint,” which showed columns of color exploding all over a soon-to-be demolished low-income housing project in Scotland. I found the whole thing slightly violent when it didn’t seem totally insensitive, especially at the end. With blue paint streaming down from the sky, the scene suggested acid rain pouring down on the rusted playgrounds of the already sadly toxic neighborhood.

Certainly, the bunnies are cuter. But they’re not an original visual idea, and neither is the match of the always excellent Rolling Stones music, since Apple used it a decade ago to make the same point about color in promoting the then revolutionary iMac.