Cannes 07

Another Soap Success Story for Unilever

Tale of the Neon Girl Is Cannes Grand Prix Material

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That Unilever. It sure does know how to sell soap.

There is, of course, Dove's "Campaign for Real Beauty," which has won consumer goodwill by celebrating natural radiance and reasonable body shapes, vs. the unattainable, freakazoid, fashion-model ideal.

Then there is Dove's reciprocal: the Suave "Pretty Mommy" campaign, which invites young women to lift themselves out of their weary, desexualized, diaper-bag-toting rut and rediscover their inner hottie.

Forget hypocrisy
Both campaigns are disingenuous, trading as they do on brand ethos, not tangible brand benefits, yet implying otherwise. And both campaigns are brilliant -- because no matter how hypocritical Unilever may be in advocating "real" anything, the messages both go to the core of contemporary human truth. You don't see a whole lot of that in advertising. (Anyway, hypocrisy isn't necessarily a disqualifier. Several of the Medici were conniving and vicious. They still underwrote the Renaissance.)

But we digress. For now, from Argentina, comes a third effort: It is for Lux soap, via Santo, Buenos Aires, and it is another masterpiece. But unlike the others, it does not trade on anything more liberating than the relaxation of a hot bath. No, don't look for Great Thoughts here -- only great execution, a triumph of storytelling combined with a triumph of production.

Also: no actors. Also: no dialogue. Also: Grand Prix material in two months at Cannes, because the spot is simply magnificent and magnificently simple: a story about a lovely girl having a bad day. She loses her spark, sullied and degraded by her environment. Weary and demoralized, she trundles home for the serene refuge of her bathtub. There she Lux-uriates and recharges. Then out she goes back into the world, energized and radiant. In no time, she finds true love and her face in lights above the city.

Sounds melodramatic and simplistic
Now maybe that sounds a little melodramatic and simplistic. But there's one thing you need to know: It's played out in neon. And argon, krypton, xenon and helium. It's a noble effort employing the noble gasses, a narrative -- from left to right -- told by illuminating outdoor signage.

OK, it's done with CGI, not real glass tubing. So what? The effect is indistinguishable from the real deal and no less captivating. In the opening shot, our heroine is lighting up the skyline in the form of a waitress at the Palace Cafe, waving at pedestrians below. But then her neon arm buzzes and burns out. When she reacts -- in pain and blinking neon tears -- you begin to realize something unusual is going on.

The rest of the story is traced along the vast rooftop superstructure, as she blunders her way toward home -- here getting splashed by a passing taxi, here breaking a heel -- and the bathtub, where Lux saves the day.

Wordless story
The wordless story is propelled by a lovely wordless choral track, along Burt Bachrach lines, with a small orchestra and angelic voices ("zooom zoom zoom ZOOOOM zoom") combining to demarcate the emotional highs and lows. Needless to say, the tempo picks up when she returns to the street and gets ogled by neon men and lassoed by an admiring neon cowboy. As he pulls her toward him, she grabs a couple of neon martinis, neon hearts blink and they live happily ever after atop a soaring, spectacular animated display above the Jive nightclub.

This film, so clever and incandescent, positively lights up the brand. It's not illuminating in the sense of teaching us anything about the product. But it surely sheds light on how a single 60-second ad can make us feel good about the experience, and about an ordinary, inexpensive, mass-merchandised bar of soap.

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