Fox Sports gets Canned for funny spots that fall short

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Well, sacre bleu. Imagine! The funniest campaign won the Grand Prix at Cannes.

After going back and forth, the jury finally decided that the hilarious Fox Sports Network spots from Cliff Freeman & Partners, New York, were superior to the merely very, very, very amusing spot from Leo Burnett Co., London, for John West canned salmon.

Both advertisers invoked hyperbole to make a point about their brands. In the case of John West-which showed one of its employees kick fighting with a Kodiak bear over a particularly prime specimen of salmon-the point was that only the canner goes to any length to procure the finest-quality fish. As for Fox Sports, the point was that ... that ... uh ... well, the point was that the commercials were hilarious.

This campaign has been collecting trophies the world over because it's so funny and so brilliantly crafted, in spite of the fact that:

1) the nature of the actual message is a little obscure,

2) it is not the best advertising in the world, and

3) it isn't even the best advertising in its category, a distinction that still belongs to ESPN's SportsCenter, which conveys not just lots of yuks but also its absolute brand essence in every spot.

The Fox campaign tries to do even more. The series of four totally deadpan, totally fake sports broadcasts from various Third World countries suggests an irreverence that trumps even that of ESPN. But this campaign aims to go ESPN one better by defining a Unique Selling Proposition: that Fox Sports is regional, giving viewers only the programming they are most interested in.

That is, of course, a fine USP, and this campaign almost communicates it. One spot, ostensibly from India, shows two blindfolded men in a ring surrounded by cheering spectators. The contestants are wailing on one another with gigantic clubs. The commentators describe the action with straightfaced excitement in an exotic tongue.

What no doubt impressed jurors at Cannes and everywhere else is the fabulous attention to detail. The costumes, the staging, the sportscasters' patter-they all ring true, except the part about blindfolded men clubbing one another. As absurd as it is, the event looks real. It's approximately like watching sumo, or curling. You can scarcely believe people actually do this for sport, yet there it is.

The most hilarious of the hilarious is, supposedly, from Turkey. It's just cliff diving-with the judges' numerical scores superimposed on screen-only there's no water. The divers land with a thud on a dusty flat. Hysterical.

Then, Fox's pitch: "Sports news from the only region you care about. Yours."

OK, great, but what, precisely are they saying? Is it that if you lived in Turkey, and had Fox Sports Channel, you could watch all the land cliff diving you wanted? Or is it that if you live in Wyoming, you can get your rodeo results without having to see a single Turkish-land-cliff-diving highlight?

But, wait. I'd love to see land cliff diving. I'm laughing so hard at the spot because I love land cliff diving. So, tell me again, what is the selling proposition?

But let's be real here. While humor that's brilliant but insufficiently illuminating may do advertisers a small disservice in the actual marketplace, it's no handicap whatsoever in the parallel advertising universe of Festivalworld. Least of all at Cannes, where annually jury presidents admonish their charges to remember that the business they're in is business, and where annually the juries produce a winner's reel that could be marketed as The World's Funniest TV Commercials.

Look, the Fox Sports Campaign isn't bad. It's good, but obviously, substantially flawed, because-for all the hilarity-it doesn't quite communicate. It's on the verge, but doesn't quite get there. John West got there. Lots of less funny ads get there all the time. But they didn't win the grand prize, because grand prizes come from the only region Cannes juries care about:

Entertainment.

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