Quintessentially, consider the 1999 article in Slate titled (naturally) "The New Hidden Persuaders" about "starry-eyed admen and hypnosis gurus ... probing the consumer unconscious to sell soap." Hardly an isolated example. Google the phrase "to sell soap"; you'll get 21,799 other hits.
But don't be too offended, you starry-eyed admen. In fact, this coming week in Cannes, you might consider flaunting the notion -- because it happens that the best ad campaign in the world this past year sold soap.
Also the second-best.
Also the third.
A good question
But lest the editors get all in a lather, know first that the Grand Prix for 2007 should go, must go, will go to Dove and Ogilvy & Mather, Toronto, for the internet-bred tour de force "Evolution." A simple idea executed to technical perfection, it uses time lapse to show an ordinary-looking woman tricked by makeup artists, hairdressers, lighting and digital retouching to become a billboard vixen -- this to pose the question: How have we so distorted our notions of beauty?
It is the most eloquent expression to date of Dove's provocative "Campaign for Real Beauty." Which, by the way, has sold a lot of soap.
Leave us not, however, be so soulless and mercenary. This spot should win also because its genesis is online, and awarding it would be Cannes' belatedly genuine acknowledgement that the world has changed. "Evolution" indeed.
Oh, there are nominally other Grand Prix possibilities. There will be some sentiment for two Coca-Cola spots from Wieden & Kennedy (one from Amsterdam, Netherlands, the other Portland, Ore.). The first is "Happiness Factory," a Willy Wonka-ish fantasy following the life of a vending Coke from coin insertion on. The second, "Video Game," is a spoof of "Grand Theft Auto," only it's about the opposite of mayhem. The hero helps everybody he encounters, paying it forward with a Coke and a smile.
Sony Bravia ( Fallon, London) followed up its transcendent "Balls" with another eye-opener titled "Paint." This one shows 73,000 liters of brightly colored enamel being cannon-shot out of Scottish public housing in time to Rossini. It's as majestic as "Balls" was mesmerizing.
A long shot, from McCann Erickson, Mumbai, India, for Happy White Teeth Whitening Gum, shows the progress of a humble worker running late for work at the palace. En route he passes lots of what look to be yogis poised in odd positions: atop lampposts, mounted on car fenders, etc. In the end, he gets to work, where he climbs to join his colleagues in a huge chandelier. When they smile, their Happy White teeth light up the room. All of the yogis we've seen, it turns out, are human light fixtures. Amazing.
Likewise the second-best entry to the festival: for Lux, via Santo, Buenos Aires, Argentina -- a remarkable achievement in image making, digital effects and especially storytelling. The spot is called "Neon Girl," and it tells a story of a young woman having a bad day until she gets home to take a bath with Lux. Revived, she goes back out into the night and finds love and happiness. The thing is, this is all played out sideways in neon lighting -- or, at least, CGI-simulated neon lighting. To watch it is to gasp.
Soap masterpiece No. 3 is sure to be the Palais favorite: an eight-spot campaign from JEH United, Bangkok, Thailand, for Smooth E face foam. It's a tongue-in-cheek serial populated with over-the-top characters and lots of self-conscious references to every TV-commercial clich� you can think of. It's funny, it's charming and -- incredibly enough -- it's even involving as an, ahem, soap opera. But it's also pretty much an extension of last year's gold Lion-winning campaign employing all the same gimmicks.
And that's pretty much it. The worldwide output of TV commercials this year was pitiful. If the Cannes juries are rigorous, the awards ceremonies will be very brief. Even Leo Burnett's annual Cannes Predictions Reel, compiled with winners from festivals around the world, is slim pickings this year. Only four other spots on the reel are worthy of gold, much less a Grand Prix.
One, for Daimler's Smart car from BBDO, D�sseldorf, Germany, depicts one advantage of no backseat: no driver strangulations, � la familiar movie scenes, from the rear. Another, introducing 1st For Women insurance (Black River FC, Johannesburg, South Africa), shows why they don't bother covering male drivers: They're idiots.
Altoids Sours, via Burnett, somehow manages to out-Starburst Starburst in the hilarious-weirdness category with a blind consumer test involving fruit-garnished underpants being wiggled at point-blank range.
And the cleverest of the lot is from Walker, Z�rich, Switzerland, for Fleurop-Interflora. It shows flashbacks of teenage humiliations and asks if it isn't time to forgive Mom with a Mother's Day bouquet. Simplicity and perfection.
But, no, they don't quite rate. This year, to sell soap, advertising was the antithesis of banal. On the contrary: It raised the bar.