Ideas rule at Cannes

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"But where's the idea?"

This is what the all-in-blacks sniff when confronted by a TV commercial that is either: a) too dependent on production; b) wildly popular with audiences because some character or phrase of dialogue captures viewers' imaginations; or, most often, c) done by someone else.

For instance, a few years back, when the Dutch cinematic spec-tacle for Nike, "Good vs. Evil"--pitting a European all-star soccer team against the squad from Hades--won a Gold Lion, the resentful Palais audience jeered in protest. (Never mind there wasn't one derisive whistler who wouldn't sell his mother's eyes to have that spot on his reel.)


The Taco Bell Chihuahua, of course, was a non-factor here. Likewise the old Bud Light "Yes, I am!" spot. Yes, it was a catchphrase on the lips of all America, but, ahem, "Where's the idea?"

This mentality is a big problem in advertising, even the most celebrated practitioners of which sometimes forget the idea isn't to have the cleverest idea; the idea is, one way or another, to motivate consumers. And if a cute dog or a catchy jingle will do the trick, who cares where the idea is?

Of course, that said, much successful advertising--and virtually all Lion-winning advertising--does indeed trade on simplicity, clarity and sheer ingenuity.

That's why this year will be a virtually sniff-free International Advertising Festival. In 1999, production will take a holiday. The all-in-blacks will be in their glory, for this week the idea will reign.

In the alcoholic beverages category, for example, a magnificent vignette about an aging swimmer for Guinness stout (Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, London) and a hilarious shaggy-bomb story for Brazil's Brahma beer (Savaglio TBWA, Buenos Aires) about deathbed confessions may well take Lions, but the gold will go to a Heineken spot ( Lowe & Partners/SMS, New York) aired during the U.S. Tennis Open. The premise: cafe waiters poising and scrambling like tennis ballboys to remove Heineken empties.

The three best car entries barely show moving cars. One pair of Dutch spots for Volkswagen (Result DDB, Amsterdam) depicts, docu-style, Lupo minicar drivers stymied by traffic and parallel parking because the car feels bigger than it is. In a Swedish Volvo spot (Forsman & Bodenfors, Stockholm), the car is the last-second payoff in a simple love story between man and dog; a bachelor ditches his sexy ragtop for the doggy comfort of a Volvo wagon. And a Spanish Audi ad (Tandem Campmany Guasch DDB, Barcelona) similarly introduces its product in the last instant, when it breaks up a lifelong romance between a man and the Harley-Davidson of his dreams.

No fancy effects. No complicated staging. No camera tricks. No quick cuts. Just story telling.

The annual Cannes predictions reel put together by Leo Burnett Co. (this year compiled by Paul Kemp Robertson, succeeding the peripatetic Donald Gunn) offers many such simple delights. A campaign for Hornby Hobbies' Scalectrix toy slot cars (Lowe Howard-Spink, London) riffs brilliantly on the simple notion of men desperate to have boy children to race model cars with. (One guy, whose wife has just delivered a baby girl, asks if she wants to try for a boy. She says yes. He strips and jumps into her hospital bed.)

Procter & Gamble Co.'s Ace laundry detergent in Peru (Leo Burnett, Lima) shows a woman transplanting a tree to which she has strung her clothesline. She moves the tree 3 feet. Why? Ace now offers 10% more soap powder free.

Sony Camcorder (BMP DDB, London) shows a guy videotaping his girlfriend at a highway rest stop. When his camcorder battery dies, the photo opportunity of a lifetime dies with it. And Hollywood Video ( Cliff Freeman & Partners, New York) pulls an overwrought voice-over artist out of a cabinet to give a video-rental customer a synopsis of their selected movie.

It's not that the production is absent in these spots. Quite the contrary. It's superior--but invisible. All we see is the joke, and we see it splendidly.

This gets to the three entries most likely to win the Grand Prix. Cliff Freeman's introductory campaign for had the simplest of briefs: to imprint the e-retailer's URL on the e-consumer's psyche. This outrageous campaign did so by being simply outrageous. In one spot, we see kindergartners with the company's logo tattooed on their heads. In another, gerbils are shot from a cannon through the second "O" in Outpost. In a third, ravenous wolves are unleashed on a high-school marching band. The campaign dared the viewer to remember the advertiser's name.

The consumer did.

By the same token, Japan's Wowow cable-movie channel wanted to make the point that it is highly valued by its viewers. So Dentsu, Tokyo, showed a Japanese expatriate at dinner with his blond American girlfriend, when he abruptly decides he must return to Japan. At great, bizarre length he does so as, all the while, she screams, "But why? Why? Why?!"

For the TV, it turns out.

It's weird and wonderful, superficially convoluted but ultimately as simple as can be.

This leaves the simplest and most wonderful of all, from Leo Burnett, Madrid, for Airtel cellular. A man is sitting in his living room, reading a book. His phone rings. "Yes?" he says. He listens for a moment, puts down the phone and gets up from his chair. He walks to the kitchen, removes something from a grocery bag and walks through the apartment.

Then he opens the bathroom door, hands his wife a roll of toilet paper and goes back to his reading. The title card: "The new Airtel local rates. If you're calling close by."

A universal problem solved by a hitherto unimaginable cellular extravagance. There's the idea.

Copyright June 1999, Crain Communications Inc.

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