Ad Review: If Molson tops global rivals for top lion, blame Canada

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Oh, here's a good idea. Why not predict a winner from among the 5,757 Cannes TV entries, before the festival even begins? This from someone who picked Sonny Liston, George McGovern and Miss New Hampshire 11 years in a row.

Fine. We'll pick Molson, from Bensimon-Byrne/DMB&B, Toronto. At the moment, it happens to be the best TV ad from anywhere in the world. The problem is, at the International Advertising Festival, being the best is sometimes not enough.

The Molson spot, for instance, is very talky. Titled "The Rant," it features a young man named Joe speaking before an audience of his countrymen, detailing in what particular ways he is neither an American nor the American stereotype of a Canadian, but a true Canadian to the core.

"Hey, I'm not a lumberjack or a fur trader, and I don't live in an igloo or eat blubber or own a dogsled," he begins, "and I don't know Jimmy or Sally or Susie from Saskatchewan -- although I'm certain they're really, really nice."

And so on toward a crescendo. It's a funny, stirring, irresistible anthem of national pride, orated with just the right tone of frustration, never lapsing into meanness or contempt. Historically, however, lots of talk doesn't fare well here. English may be the lingua franca, but wordplay and dialect are apt to elude the audience.

So, then, what about the inspired, brilliant Leo Burnett, Bangkok, spots for McDonald's of Thailand? Not a word uttered in these. Just two extended close-ups: in one spot, a bride at the altar; in the other, a competitive swimmer doing the freestyle. Oh, both of them are eating burgers -- because the sandwiches are on special at only 29 baht. The camera never shies away, and for 15 seconds we just stare. With no dialogue at all, these ads are witty and arresting in any language.

But -- retail promotion -- it's so small. Cannes doesn't like small.

So how about an exotic-location spot, shot on some game reserve in Kenya? We see various park rangers going about the business of restoring some untamable beasts to the wild, where they can roam free. We expect zoo lions or some such, but what they release is a pride of Land Rover Freelanders. Wonderful.

Problem is, the U.K. took the Grand Prix last year. Back to back just wouldn't do.

Well, of course, there's always perennial contender Nike, with two magnificent spots from Wieden & Kennedy, Portland, Ore. One, called "The Morning After," tweaks Y2K paranoia by showing a runner rise on Jan. 1 to do his workout, amid civil chaos. The other, to Joe Cocker's "You Are So Beautiful," is a portrait montage of athletes disfigured while just doing it. But Nike has won before, and it has all these big, big production budgets, and Cannes definitely doesn't like big.

That would leave H&R Block, from Y&R Advertising, Chicago, and its sublime chronicle of a beleaguered taxpayer preparing for April 15, edging ever closer to nervous collapse. Truly hilarious and hilariously true, it could easily go all the way -- but it's from the U.S., isn't it? It's not that Cannes doesn't like the U.S.; it's that Cannes likes the U.S. too much, and hates itself for that.

So the laugh-out-loud funny Fallon, Minneapolis, work for FX Network won't get the Grand Prix. Nor will Heinz's astonishingly original ketchup campaign from Leo Burnett USA, Chicago. Nor will the OgilvyOne, Chicago, cult favorite for Ameritrade. Nor will the competing Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, San Francisco, campaign for E*Trade. Nor will Budweiser's latest buzzword triumph "Whassup?" from DDB Worldwide, Chicago. Nor will Fallon's dead-on cowboy spoof "Herding Cats" for EDS.

Those ads will all take gold (or, in head-to-head battles among one another, silver), vying against equally worthy work from elsewhere: a U.K. Ikea spot from St. Luke's, London; the world's best BMW ad in years from S,C,P,F, Barcelona; and an understated but powerful spot called "Waterfall" for NBBS Travel from BBC&W, Amsterdam.

In the end, the winner has to be Molson after all. Wordy and local as it seems, the central concept is that Canada is not some pale northern province of America but a proud nation in its own right. Proud of its heritage. Proud of its differences. Proud of its beer -- Molson Canadian.

As a witty, inspiring broadside against American arrogance and cultural imperialism, it isn't too inside at all. Quite the opposite. For a festival that would love to not like America so much, it is universal.

And Cannes loves universal.

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