Despite angering the Chinese government with depictions of Olympics-related torture for Amnesty International, Cannes International Advertising Festival organizers and the network, upon reviewing the entry, realized its token media buy occurred after the April 30 deadline.
The grim PSAs portray torture taking place inside sporting facilities; two thugs dunk a bound man's head in the pool, a woman is chained to a weightlifting bar and plates and an officer gloats while behind him stands tied to an archery target. The strapline reads "After the Olympic Games, the fight for human rights must go on."
According to a source familiar with the proceedings, the ads ran in French publication 20 Minutes but appeared after the deadline, disqualifying them from entry. However, before either the festival or the agency realized the disqualifying technicality, complaints arose from Chinese state-run media as well as bloggers and Internet users, leading the network and client to disavow the messaging amidst calls for a boycott of all TBWA-related marketers, among which Visa, a major sponsor of the Beijing Olympics, counts itself. TBWA made a statement that neither the Chinese office nor the International umbrella had "involvement or prior knowledge in the development of [the] campaign," but Chinese groups continued to call for the award to be relinquished.
The news comes among a particularly turbulent year for accountability at the show; Saatchi & Saatchi, New York and production partner Epoch Films landed in hot water after a scam spot for retailer JC Penney, "Speed Dressing," won a Bronze film Lion. Leo Burnett, India won a Gold for its Print work for Luxor Highlighters which isn't even the agency's client, according to the Times of India.* Cannes Chairman Terry Savage issued a statement along with the news that read, in part, "It is important for the advertising and the awards industry that entries made comply fully with the rules and spirit of the Festival." But while the Amnesty ads broke the rules, there have never been any meaningful repercussions for those awards entrants who violate the show's spirit - those who employ the tactic of running under-the-radar work once or twice in far-flung media locales, like late night in Bend, Oregon (see "4 A.M. Bend, Oregon: An Awards Report fairy tale..." from our Summer issue).
This isn't the first time an agency has lost a Lion; Lowe, Grey and Saatchi have all also either given back or been stripped of awards once their veracity was called into question.
*After publication, Leo Burnett produced a signed letter from Arvind Krishnan, senior vice president of business operations at Luxor India verifying that he approved the press campaign in December of 2007.