Good Work Graced Cannes, Not That Everyone Noticed

Hints That the Ad Business Can Get a Whole Lot Better in the Post-Mass-Media Age

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It is easy to lose sight of the advertising at the Cannes advertising festival.

What was once an awards show is now big business. Up and down Le Croisette, Labrador-retriever account men doggedly track their clients and warn off incoming agency rivals. The $50 billion gorilla at the event, Microsoft, makes its omnipresence felt by taking advertisers out on a $50 million yacht, inviting them to countless events and plastering banners all over the Palais (beneath which creatives sit and surf on their MacBooks). Major global ad networks rope off rooms for meetings at which their man in Caracas finally meets their man in Helsinki.

When the wheeling and dealing stops, there are jammed bars to be negotiated, bottles of Veuve to be bought, buckets of rosé to drown in and a countless parade of parties to totter to. If that's not enough distraction, there's the unsettling sight of European men strutting in their banana hammocks and a whole array of fashion finery sported by the festival goers themselves -- who knew white linen shirts came in quite so many hues?

Ads do get a mention during hotel-terrace chitchat, but this year the conversation was largely the question of whether BBDO's "Voyeur" for HBO would clean up across award categories, and, if it did, what that said about those categories being essentially meaningless other than as revenue generators for the event's owners.

Still, far from the Mad-men crowd, in the dungeons of the Palais, the festival displays some of the 28,000 submissions. There's plenty of mediocre work on show but also enough gems to remind us why this whole Cannes thing got going in the first place and perhaps even suggest that the ad business can get a whole lot better in the post-mass-media age. Here are my favorites:

Lowe Bangkok's "Torture Test" used a white-T-shirt as an envelope for a direct-mail piece containing a sample of Unilever laundry detergent. Consumers' addresses were written on the T-shirt, and by the time the T-shirts made it through the Thai postal system they were filthy -- presenting a real stain-removal test for the recipient. An ingenious way to put the product at the center of the marketing and show faith in its efficacy.

Publicis Mojo Auckland's effort for Speights beer played off the fact that New Zealanders in London had to do without their native ale. The agency put a Speights-serving pub on a boat that would sail around the world, via numerous ports, to England. It then ran a contest to find barmen who'd sail with the bar. Six percent of the male population of New Zealand applied for the job, and Speights regained its best-selling-beer slot in the country.

Y&R Interactive in Tel Aviv wanted to remind people that there had been no news of two Israeli soldiers kidnapped by Hezbollah. The agency persuaded the top 400 websites in Israel, even Google, to simultaneously display the message "Soldiers Cannot Be Found" -- playing off "website cannot be found" -- for five minutes on the anniversary of their disappearance. OK, so that's just a "roadblock," but what a roadblock: 65% of the nation saw the message that day.

To raise money for clean drinking water in developing nations (and raise its own profile), Belgian TV station Studio Brussel and agency Mortierbrigade came up with a campaign in which a black kid would make unrehearsed forays onto the sets of the station's prime-time shows, grab the show host's glass of water, gulp it down and run off. They raised 3.3 million euros in six days.

To raise awareness of the plight of a number of endangered birds in Japan, Beacon Communications had top DJs and record producers turn the birds' calls into dance tracks and put them down on vinyl. It issued as many copies of each record as there were numbers of the corresponding bird left in the wild -- making many of the records instant collector's items. Apart from raising awareness, the record sales also helped boost funds for the Wild Bird Society of Japan.

While we're on birds, there was the campaign for Swedish outdoor-equipment company Playground by Akestam Holst, Stockholm, that decided to test whether a man could hatch an egg in one of Playground's down winter jackets. He could, he did, the media loved the story, and sales of the jackets rose 500%.

Throw in a couple of better-known campaigns such as Crispin's "Whopper Freakout" and Droga 5's "Million," and this starts to look like a breakthrough year, a year in which the best class tore down the walls and made agnostic ideas a reality.
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