U.S. Cellular Spot Charms, but Gives Only Shadow of Message

'Shadow Puppets' Likely to Do Better at Awards Shows Than at Selling Cellphone Service

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It's hard to say whether the new spot for U.S. Cellular, titled "Shadow Puppets," is more clever or more charming. It's so sweet and pretty, warmhearted and captivating. So intricately produced yet so gentle and unassuming. Such a precious, lilting story built on the smallest gestures projected large.

Literally.

"Shadow Puppets" is about shadow puppets, silhouettes of very deft fingers cast across a cityscape to tell a story about two bunny rabbits in a cross-town romance. Be careful when you watch it. It'll leave love marks.

It'll also receive high marks, at Cannes and the rest of the festival circuit. We only wish it were likely to sell cellular, which we fear it will not. This breaks our heart, because in many ways this ad incorporates the advertising values we most believe in.

It tells an age-old story: Boy rabbit sees girl rabbit, boy rabbit falls in love with girl rabbit, boy rabbit sprouts wings and flies to girl rabbit, boy and girl rabbit kiss like bunny rabbits. It's visually arresting. It generates emotion (mainly by being so self-consciously sentimental that it neutralizes the stench of cheap sentimentality). And it even, eventually, ties into the selling proposition. That's actually where things fall apart, but more on that presently.

Publicis & Hal Riney, San Francisco, and director Garth Davis did a splendid job making this work, logistically and technically. No matter how simple a shadow puppet is to produce against your kitchen wall, it can't be easy to train the shadows onto tall buildings blocks apart and do so in synchrony in front of a live, gathering audience.

That's one of the charms of "Shadow Puppets." We see the crowds coalesce, all smiles, as the stunt unfolds. In this respect, it is reminiscent -- if not necessarily derivative -- of other publicly staged adver-sodes, especially the T-Mobile spot about folks dancing (apparently but not actually) spontaneously in London's Liverpool Street tube station.

That haven't-we-seen-this-idea-before baggage will surely disqualify it from Grand Prix consideration next season. But that's not really the big issue.

Nor is it the risk of blowback from the choice of music, the 80-year-old Billy Rose standard "Tonight You Belong to Me." It's a delightful little tune, sung in duet, to ukulele accompaniment. It bears mentioning, though, that the singers are sound-alikes for Bernadette Peters and Steve Martin, from their turn as two blithering morons in the movie "The Jerk." They sing it just before the most repressed non-kiss ever filmed, just before he confuses her destiny with his ... oh, never mind.

Let's just say that if you recognize the source, the romance factor kind of suffers.

But not by much, really. The film is too lovely to be harmed by much of anything. The question is: Where does the advertising element come in?

Ostensibly, that happens at the very end, when the voice-over attempts to connect the essence of the narrative with the brand's USP. "The world is full of things to share," he says. "That's why only U.S. Cellular has free incoming calls, texts and pics."

Got it? We all just shared the puppet show, and your callers can share voice and data with you at no cost to you!

Hmm. "Free incoming" is a perfectly sound product differentiation, but that's not really what the bunny-silhouette stunt communicates. Sure, this exercise in languid storytelling is a welcome departure from the frantic jokey-ness employed by every other wireless carrier, but those ads are always, from a selling-point perspective, dead on.

We hope we're wrong. But we suspect this commercial is just like shadow puppetry: something very different, and much smaller, than it appears.

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