Fish in a can comes second in Cannes

This year’s Cannes International Advertising Festival was another good one for the UK, but the winning US ad was controversial.

Falling revenues, redundancies and talk of slowdowns were put aside last week as the world’s advertising industry gathered for its annual orgy of excess, otherwise known as the Cannes International Advertising Festival. Rumour has it that during this event the city’s legendarily expensive bars take three times as much money as they do during the film festival: if the ad business is concerned about the economic situation, it does a great job of hiding it.

At the heart of the festival is the advertising world’s biggest awards scheme – the Cannes Lions. This year, the battle for the most prestigious prize, the film Grand Prix for best commercial, was a straight fight between a UK and a US ad. Leo Burnett London’s Bear (for John West salmon) took on New York’s Cliff Freeman & Partners’ campaign for Fox Sports. But the judging process was not without controversy, as jury president Bob Isherwood (worldwide creative director of Saatchi & Saatchi) claimed to have thrown out 20 “scam” ads during the deliberations of both the press and poster and film juries.

Scam ads – produced by agencies with the express purpose of winning an award, often for a non-existent client – have been a persistent problem at Cannes, so much so that Isherwood has instigated a President’s Log in which he has named the perpetrators. This log will be passed to next year’s president so that repeat offenders will be identified and, he hinted, censured. “Cannes is the world’s most prestigious awards show and to keep it that way we need to be tough on cheats,” said Isherwood at the film winners’ press conference. “This event is all about real work having a real impact on clients.”

The “real work” that emerged victorious in what was apparently a lengthy discussion was Fox Sports, by a two-thirds majority rather than a unanimous decision. The four ads, entitled India, Russia, Turkey and China purport to show TV footage of bizarre local sports. In Turkey a man dives off a cliff, hitting the bare earth far below with a resounding thud before his “score” for the dive appears at the bottom of the screen. India features two blindfolded contestants wielding huge clubs, Russia a face-slapping contest, China a man trying to catch a falling tree with predictable slapstick results. All promote Fox’s local sports coverage – news from “the only region you care about. Yours”.

Though undoubtedly funny and a huge hit with the notoriously tough awards night crowd, the campaign’s win was not universally praised. Objections were voiced by both press and delegates over the fact that it was, in essence, a self-promotional campaign for a TV station rather than a campaign of traditional commercials. Isherwood’s response was that the campaign was “so overwhelmingly brilliant that it needed to be awarded in the way it has been”.

A further, more serious, concern centred around the nature of the ads themselves: essentially they are a witty exercise in xenophobia. The message, “let’s laugh at all these weird foreigners”, is not necessarily one that sits happily with an event which purports to be truly international. And, of course, the campaign could never have run in the UK as it would have been far too violent for the strictures of the Broadcast Advertising Clearance Centre, as many British creatives were at pains to point out.

The Brits could console themselves with the fact that they won more film Gold Lions than anyone else, including the Americans – eight out of the 24 awarded. This made up in part for a surprisingly poor showing in the press and poster awards where the UK picked up just two golds. Spots for Stella Artois (Hero’s Return), Dr Pepper (Emergency), Heinz Microwaveable Soup (Quick), Volkswagen Passat (Driving Test), Levi’s (Twist) and McDonald’s (99p campaign) joined Bear in the winner’s circle. Widely predicted successes for Saatchi & Saatchi’s campaign and Guinness Dream Club from Abbott Mead Vickers.BBDO were not forthcoming however: both picked up bronze. There was a special mention for J Walter Thompson’s Different spot for the Special Olympics. In it, a man with Down’s Syndrome talks about how people pointing and shouting at him make him feel fantastic rather than victimised. Why? Because they are cheering him on as he plays for the British Special Olympics football team. Charity ads are not eligible for the Grand Prix but the jury felt the ad deserved recognition and awarded it a Medal of Honour.

Overall, 70 commercials were deemed worthy of a Lion – down from 110 last year – in what was generally seen as a solid rather than spectacular year. The UK won 16 in total, sharing top spot with the US. The Palme D’Or for the year’s most successful production company went to New York’s while Brazil’s F/Nazca Saatchi & Saatchi/Sao Paulo picked up Agency of the Year. August A Busch IV jetted in to pick up Anheuser-Busch’s award as Advertiser of the Year, won largely due to the popularity of his company’s Budweiser advertising. Thankfully, he resisted the temptation to use the word “Whassup” in his acceptance speech.

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