Originally published in the Vancouver Review, Fall 1994.



The Cannes International Advertising Film Festival

Review by Michael Brockington.

What would you say if I offered to strap you in a chair, clamp your eyelids open and force you to watch commercials for an hour and a half?

 No? Well, here's another proposition. Same scenario, without the bondage -- only I charge you four bucks admission.

 One of these possibilities is a deranged Masters & Johnson experiment; the other goes by the title The Cannes International Advertising Film Festival, where consenting adults cough up the cash to watch 108 ads from 17 countries. These are the "World's Best Commercials", selected from thousands of entries.

Many would agree: going to a movie theatre to watch television commercials is odd, wrong, perhaps even evil. What does it mean, this phenomenon? Is it simply a case of lax community standards? And why is it so popular? Every Christmas the program plays a week at the Ridge Theatre in Vancouver, a repertory house where films are rarely booked for longer than a weekend. Don't assume this is simply another example of the rampant commercialization of Christmas. Every spring the program returns for a few more days "by popular demand." This year the return engagement ran March 9-10, two shows per night.

 Should I be so surprised? This is, after all, the media decade. Like most people my age, I learned my ABC's on PBS. TV is the foundation of my cultural development, and that includes commercials as much as the programs. In truth, I can recall Bill Cosby Jello ads far more easily than any re-run of I Spy. The ads are designed to burrow into your brain, while the programming, ideally, should be just boring enough to get you looking forward to the next commercial break. If shows were compelling then advertising interruptions would provoke only resentment, not a frenzy of consumption. The tedium is the message, QED.

 Seeing a film in a theatre has traditionally been a different experience. Not that advertising at the flicks is new -- the preview of coming attractions has been around forever -- but the ads were at least movie-related, and distinctly separate from the film.

Things have changed. Now theatre chains inflict arbitrary ads on the audience -- spots for various unmemorable cars, scents, credit cards. Oddly enough, some of the same people who hiss these ads before the features are first in line down at the Ridge.

Product placement is a more insidious development. Using brand-name products prominently within the action of a movie is the next best thing to subliminal advertising. Unlike subliminals, it's legal. The most famous example is probably E.T.'s fondness for M'n'M's, and the practice has steamrollered since then. Now half the ads you see on TV look like product placement spots, only without the movie. This reverses the standard way of exploiting a film. Rather than merchandizing elements from the movie via t-shirts, dolls, or soundtrack albums, pre-existing products are injected into the film.

The distinction may seem minor, but the result is a new strain of advertising, where program content and commercial are merged. Product placement is unobtrusive, unzappable. It's the difference between a flea and a cold, a parasite and a virus. The parasite may be attached to you, but the virus becomes a part of you.


Film-going is collapsing into a television experience. We have ads. We have 10 channels to choose from at the local multiplex. We have Disney re-runs to fill out the extra screens. The snack bars are stocked as well as my kitchen. Theatre screens continue to shrink, while TV's grow larger; a cross-over point is fast approaching when TV screens will dwarf the film image .

So why not? Why not spend an evening at the movies watching commercials? It's not illegal, after all. It might even have some good points.

Sheer technique. TV is a darwinian medium at any level. Competition among commercials is ruthless, and because their life-cycle is shorter than any other broadcast product, they evolve at a faster rate. Every commercial cluster is going to have 5 or 6 contenders for your attention, and each needs to be compelling enough to stop you muting the volume or zapping through on fast-forward. Promotion and gratification wrapped up in half a minute. The best of these are going to be exquisitely crafted brain candy, designer drugs, as compressed and evocative as a fine haiku.

 A memorable commercial needs to stand out from its neighbors. Plot, character, theme - such things are hard to cram into 30 seconds. What's left is technique. As a result, advertising is the pre-eminent playground for things like conventional and computer animation, special effects, extreme stylization. Ads are experimental films turned pro.

 If people can get excited about a perfectly executed triple-axel, then a brilliantly realized commercial has got to be worth a look.

 Production values. Commercials are the most expensive visual product (per minute of screen time) that exist on this planet. A 1992 report done by students at BCIT showed that high end locally produced commercials cost around $330,000 . That's $11,000 a second. The infamous Federal Debt Clock is only running at 1,427 bucks per second. Cramming more than 100 spots into their program gives the Cannes Festival the equivalent of an astronomical budget. And that money isn't being wasted on stars' salaries either -- it's all sitting on the screen.

Hey, isn't that Aunt Edna? Let's be frank, haven't we had enough of these `stars'? Isn't it refreshing to go and see something that is free of `celebrities' and `personalities'? (Yes, some people just have personalities, other people are personalities.) The success of reality-based television suggests we might actually identify with people who are more recognizably human than, say, Arnold Schwarzenegger. It's possible that the humdrummery of washing dishes or folding laundry engages the same response as a good documentary. Where else do we get to see our real lives reflected on-screen?

 A few familiar faces still pop up in the Cannes program, but the trend is fading. Celebrity endorsements have pretty much choked on their own greed and hypocrisy. M-M-Max Headroom doing Coke was probably one of the earliest symptoms of terminal decline. A computer-generated head enjoying the wonderful taste of a virtual soft-drink, yeah, you remember. On one hand, it was perfect: Max wasn't going to do a Michael Jackson and taint the product. On the other hand, the whole concept is insane. Even a spokesmodel has to have more credibility than a spokesthing. Would you buy a product because it's the one Elmer Fudd recommends?

Endorsements are another area where advertising patterns have begun to turn inside out. Instead of celebrities boosting products, we get products that make hucksters into stars. Think of Wilford Brimley, or Dini Petty. Jane Fonda gets more recognition pushing exercise videos than she ever managed as an actor.

Knowledge. There's a lot to be learned from this annual overdose of advertising. Who has the money, this year? What will they buy, what objects, images, experiences are important to them? Ad agencies spend a ton of money to gather all this data. Market research, surveys, you name it -- as far back as 1969 they were using electroencephalographs to evaluate the effect of their spots on the brain. They shoehorn this knowledge into 30 seconds, where you can access it for free. Seeing 75 minutes of the pure product without all those irritating program interruptions makes the patterns more obvious.

 One pattern at this year's festival is to have most of the commercial act as a comedy set-up, with the product as the punch-line. You're being invited to play a round of 'What are we selling this time?', with the answer flashed on-screen for all of 2 or 3 seconds at the end of the ad. A few spots even camouflage themselves as a different product entirely. One example is a cheesy-erotic Haagen-Dazs commercial that transforms into a promo for Foster's Lager.

Extrapolate the pattern: when interactive TV arrives, they'll do away with the product identification entirely, and invite you to guess the answer. Correct identification will earn you discounts on the product. Advertising is the future. When you talk about what happened this morning, that's news; talking about what's going to happen tomorrow is advertising.

Context. Control is an important aspect of the theatre experience. Ads are designed to be sneaky, to slide into our mind on the coat-tails of some other experience. Seen by choice, they're stripped of power, less able to manipulate.

As well, there is a built-in immunity to many of these ads. Many are foreign, hawking products that are unfamiliar and unavailable here. Exoticism neuters their function as advertising. However, in the best tradition of foreign films, they slip in a decent amount of nudity. The truly jaded can sometimes find TV ads for cigarettes and hard liquor -- the kind of thing which, in Canada, is censored more effectively than child pornography.

 Going to the film program means you are in control, you've chosen to attend. In normal TV viewing the commercials are scheduled at the whim of station or advertiser, and you have no choice, no power of selection. On the other hand, if for some reason you actually want to see a particular commercial, it's not really an option. The TV guide doesn't tell you what commercials are playing on channel 13 at 8:35, right? At least, it never used to. Not too long ago, there was a half-page ad in the TV guide announcing the appearance of a new 30 second episode of the Taster's Choice romance, revealing the program during which it would debut. Do you suppose the scheduling of that commercial improved the ratings of the program it interrupted?

All of the signs are pointing in the same direction. Advertising is evolving beyond the simple promotion of products.

Ads have become the product.

The Cannes International Advertising Film Festival is one of the overt manifestations. Another is that syndicated TV program which shows nothing but old movie previews strung together.

In the next five years, we will see a channel that shows commercials round the clock -- 30 second fixes, 3000 every 24 hours. Given that the programming is free, as with music videos, the thing is inevitable. The Home Shopping Network is an early prototype, hobbled by CRTC restrictions. The Globe & Mail of Mar 23, 1993 mentions a proposed US cable service to be called ATV: Advertising Television, running 5-10 minute infomercials all day long. Their vision lacks the necessary chutzpah, but they're on the right track.

And who will watch ads thematically grouped into half-hour blocks -- I Love Produce at 6:30, followed by the Wide World of Bathroom Cleansers?

All of those, perhaps, whose attention span has declined below the 3 minute threshold of MuchMusic. Alpha-trance addicts. The optic nerve is the quickest route to the brain. Others, beyond this core audience, for some of the reasons mentioned previously. But I doubt that I will be among them. I have seen the Cannes International Advertising Film Festival, and take it from me: you need to see commercials on the big screen to appreciate them properly; they just don't look the same on TV.

The Art of TV Advertising (Book Review) 
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