Wednesday, June 22, 2011

I Pledge Allegiance to the Ads: The Cannes Lions Festival

As anyone even remotely interested in the Advertising Industry should know, it's time for the Cannes Lions  International Festival of Creativity (formerly the Cannes Lions International Advertising Festival, but who wants to limit themselves these days?). As you read this, all the biggest of wigs from the most prestigious ad agencies around the world are gathering in the South of France for awards presentations, workshops, networking, partying, and general patting each other on the backs behavior.

And why not? Advertising is a $300 billion industry. It's the driving force behind what we watch on TV (and why it comes on when it does), what we see on billboards as we drive through the city, what we have to click through while we surf the web, what we hear during the breaks in our Internet radio stations, and what we have to avoid accidentally hitting with our thumbs while we use our mobile phones. It determines pop-cultural phenomena and, whether we like to admit it or not, seriously impacts our actions.

You hear it all the time: advertising is manipulation. But doesn't advertising make use of art (and creativity)? And isn't it true that all art is manipulation - of the mechanisms which trigger human emotion, (to paraphrase Robert Downey Jr. in Tropic Thunder)? But in advertising all that artistic and creative energy is used with the express purpose of supporting the machine of capitalism. Does that preclude advertising from being considered as a true art form? Probably. Does it make ads in themselves any less creative? Not in the slightest.

"If it doesn't sell, it's not creative."
-David Ogilvy

The above quote from "the most sought-after wizard of advertising" in his time perfectly reflects how ads are evaluated by the juries at the Cannes Lions Festival. They obviously want to reward the most creative pieces - ones that are clever, funny, meaningful, poignant, or otherwise interesting to watch. But they also have to take into account which advertisers did the best job marketing their clients' brands. This is what truly separates advertising from art proper: Art can be made for its own sake ("ars gratia artis" like on the logo of the now-bankrupt MGM), whereas advertising must always be in service of a client ("advertensia gratia clientisibus" as it might appear in the Latin).

My favorite ads are those that act as standalone short movies. The ones with an effective joke or that tell a story. The ones with impressive production value or that are visually dynamic. The ones where the actual brand is more of an afterthought than a focal point. Because when I watch TV, I'm looking to be entertained, not to research various products and services to buy. So I naturally gravitate towards the most entertaining ads rather than the most informative or the ones that carry the most effective brand message. Thus the ones that you'd expect a client to be unhappy with...

Advertising and Brands: A Match Made in Capitalism

Without brands, advertising would be severely limited as a medium. Sure, advertising can be purely informational, such as spreading awareness of a certain issue (mostly in the form of PSA's). But the information contained in ads is most effective and dynamic when it's trying to convince consumers to choose between two different versions of a similar product. Sometimes a particular brand has specific functional advantages over its competitors, and a good advertiser will make sure to highlight them. But sometimes sellers depend on the creativity and ingenuity of their agency to help consumers associate their unspectacular brand with memorable and exciting images.

"Brand" has become somewhat of a dirty word among independent-minded thinkers who don't like to be classified or limited or stuck within a box. Maybe it's because of the negative connotations associated with the word, such as when cattle are branded to show that they belong to a certain rancher's herd. But I, for one, see no problem with the concept of branding. I look at a brand as cultural shorthand for the way an entity wants to be perceived by the people it wishes to influence. When a writer tries to find his own unique voice or an architect struggles to perfect her style - these are both (somewhat highbrow) instances of branding.

For more cool street art, check out
When a group of cinema screen advertisers created the Cannes Lions Festival (the first of which actually took place in Venice - hence the mascot of the festival, which was modeled after the lion in the Piazza San Marco), they thought advertisers should get the same recognition shown to independent filmmakers at the Cannes Film Festival. The fact that the two fests now occupy the same town only emphasizes how independent film and commercial advertising are starting to appeal to the same demographic. But it doesn't change that the Palme d'Or is awarded to the "best feature film" whereas the various Lions awards are presented to those agencies that do the best job marketing a specific brand.

Films are made to make money and prestige for themselves and those involved in the production. Ads, however, in addition to the above, are made to make money for a third party's company. Something that's not creative might not sell, but if it comes down to one or the other, it's no secret that most agencies and clients would choose what sells. And although I am a dedicated consumer and a functional (if somewhat reluctant) member of a capitalistic system, I will always prefer a creative ad to one that sells. But, then again, I think I watch ads for a very different reason than agencies and clients want me to watch them...