By Published on .

Most Popular
[cannes] Once again it beckons, this mecca of advertising excess. Here, 9,000 worshipers of Originality converge for their sun-drenched hajj -- each of them, of course, dressed in black. It is festival time on the Cote de Noir.

What will happen here? The usual. A handful of magnificent advertisements will be Lionized. A similar number of worthy advertisements will be dismissed. Thousands upon thousands of forgettable commercials will be screened to indifference, or worse. And one or two travesties will win gold instead of the scorn they deserve.

Cocktails will flow. Platinum cards will be flashed. Lavish meals will be expensed. Situational ethics will be invoked. Deals will be done.

Some creatives will be inspired by what they see. Many more will be reassured of their own singular genius. And the harbor will echo each morning with the slosh and rumble of the street-cleaning machines, accompanied by the shuffling footfalls of carousers retiring to the dawn.

I'll be one of them, adolescent immoderation being the contagion it is. Then, after seven days of high-priced hedonism, reality will resume. I will flee the holy city on the return half of my -- please note -- $5,951.40 air ticket to do the same thing I've been doing for 15 years. Unfortunately, so will everybody else.

In a week's time, the Nice airport will overflow with the bleary-eyed, more exhausted by the experience than educated by it. Though they will have witnessed -- and applauded -- two or three dozen dazzling solutions to daunting creative, strategic or communications challenges, most will go back home having internalized all the wrong lessons. And the next year, it all will happen again.

Why? Why? Why? There is simply no need for this to be.

To paraphrase Tolstoy, all good advertisements are alike; they all combine sound strategy with sound execution of a sound selling idea. But (sorry Leo) all bad advertisements are alike, too; they make the same few mistakes over and over and over.

For a critic, that truth represents an endless resource, a golden goose, a perpetual motion machine. The ads break. I document these recurring flaws. The ads (usually) fail. Alas, whatever grim satisfaction I get out of being proved correct is trumped by the utter futility of seeing the errors repeated, perennially, inexorably, by the same agencies and the same clients, time and again. And if the weekly water torture weren't enough, each June there is Cannes.

Full immersion.

No wonder I drink.

Well, something has to be done. Forthwith, and at long last, I will promulgate the Ad Review Philosophy, a codified checklist of 10 principles I believe could solve the problem forever. First, though, a few words about why the International Advertising Festival is just the place for floating it.

Over the past 20 years, Cannes has become the industry's pre-eminent awards venue. This is the consequence of shrewd management combined with the ideal location, the cachet of the month-earlier Cannes Interntional Film Festival and, of course, the industry's inexhaustible supply of vanity. The entries (16,347 this year) stream in, absolutely unfiltered -- provided the attached checks don't bounce.

The results are eye-opening. To sit through the film screenings, for instance -- one dreadful commercial after another -- is to wonder by what delusions of competency did these things get suggested, much less entered? By what standards of salesmanship did they get approved? And by what twisted notion of decorum, never mind self-knowledge, do the all-in-blacks in the auditorium whistle and hiss at entries exactly as unwatchable as their own?

Yo, Dr. Advertising. Heal thyself.

No doubt there's a lot to be learned from the endless procession of cliches, cheesy productions, too-extravagant productions, preposterous dialogue, pointless vignettes, gratuitous sex, miscast celebrities, blaring rock 'n' roll tracks, ostentatious digital effects, vulgar jokes, obvious jokes, stolen jokes, mistimed jokes, unfunny jokes, irrelevant jokes, comical ghost entries and 73-second "director's cuts."

What's mainly to be learned is that good advertising is hard to do, that there's more to this game than a slick production and the desire to entertain, that the penalty for yielding to your worst impulses, among other things, is an audience full of your colleagues recognizing you for the fraud you are.

What the delegates seem to learn, however, is something else altogether -- i.e., that resisting your impulses is unnecessary, because the bar is set very, very low. The catalog of shortcomings I've just described is not the experience of wandering into a screening room for, say, the soft-drinks category. It's the experience of watching the short list.

The pickings are so slim, because the advertising industry is so gigantically misguided all around the world, that the Cannes juries are reduced each year to giving serious Lion consideration to ads that have gotten hissed out of the screening rooms. Oh, certainly there are deserving winners, too. Elsewhere in these pages you'll find an accounting of genuine triumphs, masterful and even sublime executions of ingenious ideas. But what this festival reminds us of most is not how the greatest work soars, transcendentally, into our hearts and imaginations. No, the sad lesson of this festival is that most practitioners of the business fail most of the time to do their jobs minimally well -- and some of them get trophies for it.

This situation is not merely frustrating; it is outrageous. And Cannes, which should be part of the solution, is part of the problem.

Is it June, or is it May? Are you a screenwriter or a copywriter, a director or an art director? Who cares! Rush to that stage. Hoist that Lion. Bask in the lights. Win the applause of your colleagues. Get the big salary. Get the Porsche. Get a killer reel together. Get your own agency -- not necessarily because you've moved much merchandise, but because you are clever, clever, clever! And all the whistling wanna-bes want to be just like you. Now hit the Hotel Martinez bar, while, somewhere back in Ohio, the client sits at his desk sweating market share and thinking of firing your award-winning ass.

What's the difference? The guy's an ignoramus in wing-tipped cordovans. You had to sneak the damned spot past him. And there is a very leggy production-company rep striding your way. You, my friend, are a star.

And so the cycle goes.

OK, big deal. I have written to this point 1,000 words and said absolutely nothing new. There is a place somewhere -- The Home for Retired Advertising Critics -- filled with doddering old scolds muttering between gin games about self-indulgent young creatives who don't care to sell. (Hey, Pops, did you like the latest frogs commer . . . THAT'S NO COMMERCIAL! WHAT'S COMMERCIAL ABOUT THAT? ANACIN! 1961! NOW THAT'S A COMMERCIAL!)

So, yeah, I understand that this lament accompanies a certain, tired point of view -- namely that advertising exists in order to help sell products and services, and that any advertising that does not ultimately serve that end is unworthy of trophies, of adulation, even of consideration.

The viewpoint also presumes that agencies struggle with an inherent conflict of interest, because the kind of advertising that best serves the client doesn't necessarily win awards, and new business is won with a reception room full of trophies. It also presumes that clients bear equal responsibility for being bewitched by the trophy cases and for falling into the thrall of executive creative directors who do 93% of their selling in teak-paneled conference rooms.

It also presumes that admonitions against entertainment value are useless, because the very best advertising is itself extremely entertaining. It is itself enthralling, bewitching and often very, very, very funny using exactly the same techniques as the stuff that embarrasses all of us to see every single day.

So the issue here is not technique at all -- it isn't "Don't try to be funny" -- but rather sensibilities. Choices. Judgment. Smarts. The question, as Cannes commences once again, is how to imagine trophy-worthy advertising without falling into the traps that, summer after summer, make the lion's share of entries here so painful to witness.

Herewith, then, a few simple observations, reiterations all. We modestly propose them as guiding principles not merely for this festival, but for all creative decisions all the time. They don't represent an inclusive list of how to do strong advertising. They do, however, address most of the biggest errors made by agencies, clients and juries in evaluating what has merit and what does not.

Advertising works. Relatively bad advertising works approximately as well as good advertising, with big swings occurring only at the extremes. The reason to be inventive is, first, to seek the great rewards that redound to big ideas, and, second, to fill the advertising environment with work that doesn't pollute. Pollution irritates the public. Irritating advertising, like cheap electricity generated with high-sulfur soft coal, ultimately increases the cost of doing business for everybody.

Awareness is nothing, at least nothing of which I'm aware. At least, nothing next to persuasion. The notorious First Union campaign, from Hal Riney built awareness off the charts. When the campaign broke (Remember? Scary carny folk and a cold, intimidating First Union monolith?), shares sold for $60. When they finally killed the ads, shares sold for $28. The off-the-charts awareness, you could argue, cost the company $32 billion. PLEASE NOTE: Charles Manson has extremely high awareness.

A shocking percentage of newspaper readers subscribe for the ads. They like the information. Don't be afraid to give it to them, in any medium, especially if you have some that may interest them. This is a parity world. David Ogilvy correctly instructed: "If you have news to deliver, deliver it." Anybody who has bona fide news about his product and declines to deliver it should be fired and sued for malfeasance.

By the way, forget what Ogilvy said. People are stupid. Really stupid, by your rarefied standards, and monumentally irony-impaired. Now, don't be insulting anybody's intelligence; no benefit in that (see rule 1). But before you spend, say, $200 million advertising Miller Lite, make sure the target audience gets it. If the core demographic for Lite were 30-year-old, college-educated Swedish art directors, Fallon Worldwide would still have the account.

Rules are made to be observed. Not broken -- observed. Ask any child psychologist; the absence of boundaries isn't liberating. It is enslaving, trapping children and art directors in an anxiety-provoking world of consequences they cannot control. What liberates is the tyranny of structure. Shakespeare wrote 154 sonnets under rigid constraints of meter and rhyme. As the French philosopher Montaigne observed, the rich sound of the trumpet is the consequence of forcing air through a narrowly confined tube.

Advertising is a shotgun, not a rifle. Let's say you're targeting 14-year-old boys. Simple choice: breasts or snot. Except that your ad will be viewed by more than 14-year-old boys. Think of who will be caught in the spray. Think of this especially before you begin "shockvertising." Advertising is unsolicited and uninvited and therefore has particular responsibility for decorum. This doesn't mean you can never push the boundaries. It is sometimes justified to offend the few in order to impress the many; it is never justified to offend the many in order to impress the few.

There is no director's cut. There is no :60 if the media buy is only :30s. There is no board the client refused to buy. There is no better version without the stupid logo shot. There is no explanation for the out-of-sync music track or the mumbled voice-over or the bad grammar. The only thing that exists is the advertising the consumer sees. Period.

The pen is mightier than the sword, but only if it has a point. You have a funny idea? Swell. But if the joke doesn't illuminate the selling proposition, no matter how hilarious it is, start over.

Likewise with celebrities. Unless the star's image has a meaning to the consumer that tracks with the meaning of the brand, save your money. You want to be on a first-name basis with Joe Montana? Good for you. Write to his fan club for an autographed picture.

Originality is sin. At least, it usually is. Why bow at that altar? Who cares besides you? Where is it written that consumers respond to novelty in advertising? The church you should be attending is the Church of Ingenuity -- finding intelligent, understandable and, yes, sometimes, surprising solutions to what is fundamentally a communications problem.

If it were your business and if it were your money, and you had to actually sell things to make a living, would you approve the ad? Be honest now. Speaking for myself, I traveled to France in Virgin Airlines' Upper Class. $5,951.40. I told my management, "Sorry, life is too short to fly trans-Atlantic coach." I always tell them that. In December, however, I flew to England, on Virgin, on my own dime.


In this article: