Last week my family and I took in the 2011 Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity (more commonly referred to as the Cannes Commercials), the annual celebration of the best in filmed advertising. The winning ads were, as usual, an entertaining mix of the hilarious, risqué and the moving, and afforded the viewer the chance to be exposed to diverse film styles (and unfamiliar products) from around the world.
One theme in this year's exhibition seemed particularly potent owing to its repetition: the power of people to transform their cities. Three award-winning commercials from Levi's, Chrysler and the paint company Dulux all utilized clever film-making, stirring scores and inspirational ad copy to convey hope and the need for collective action in the face of urban deterioration.
The Dulux "Let's Colour" project combined the free distribution of paint with a dedicated social media campaign utilizing blogs, Youtube, Twitter and Facebook to bring communities together to cover up their drab or graffiti-covered buildings and streetscapes with bright, fresh hues. The first images are of people striding purposively down their streets, while others watch from their windows, followed swiftly by sequences of frenetic action as dozens of painters in four cities swiftly transform walls, interiors and entire neighborhoods, all captured by graceful and sweeping time-lapse cinematography. The results are astonishing. As the marketing magazine Contagion puts it,
"When you see the result, you're flabbergasted. Just by covering graffiti, old paint and human-less concrete, they revive everything; entire rows of buildings and tracts, entire areas are visually lifted out of despair. What was once depressing becomes delightful. What was once dark becomes bright. What was once scary becomes welcoming. The grey is out, the gloom is literally gone."
What's so interesting about the project too is that real and lasting changes were made to these cities – as far as one can tell – without the traditional apparatus of public sector planning. Furthermore, this ad campaign was more than just marketing – it produced a global phenomenon. What started in the spring of 2010 in cities in Brazil, France, India and the UK has now inspired cities in more than 14 countries to join the project.
Another major marketing campaign centred on urban revitalization is Levi's Go Forth films which focuses on Braddock, Pennsylvania. Once home to the massive Edgar Thomson Steel works, Braddock now epitomizes the Rust Belt, having lost 90% of its population and suffered a major epidemic of crack abuse. However, the town's fortunes have been boosted by the creativity of its energetic mayor, John Fetterman, whose "do-it-yourself" revitalization efforts made him a media favourite and caught the attention of the Levi Strauss company. In 2010, Levi's made the town and its mayor the subject of a multimillion dollar "Ready to Work" series of short films, which focused on the town's resilience.
In the Go Forth ad, we hear the voice of a young girl describing how Braddock is a place that was broken, where people became sad, and left. But, she intones, "maybe the world breaks on purpose, so we can have work to do." The message is that Braddock – as well as communities like it all around the world – are the new frontier, and we all need to contribute to their well-being.
The other ad set in the Rust Belt is Chrysler's Superbowl Born of Fire spot ("Chrysler -- Imported from Detroit"), and features Eminem driving a sleek black Chrysler 200 down Detroit's streets, past factories, abandoned homes and skyscrapers – as well as ice-skaters, joggers and other residents. The rugged voice-over reminds the viewer that Detroit has been "to hell and back" yet knows "more than most" about luxury and the "finer things in life." Hot fires, hard work and conviction, he says, are the Detroit story – not the one that we've been reading in the papers (i.e., the one of perpetual decline and decay) told by people who have never been to Detroit. The music swells as Eminem stops in front of and walks into a theatre, where a chorus raises its voices to the strains of the rap star's "Lose Yourself," and he concludes, "This is the Motor City, and this is what we do."Unlike the first two spots, the Chrysler piece is pure advertising: it doesn't profile anything the corporation is actually doing in or for Detroit – instead, it offers the city as a metaphor for its own resurgence. But this in itself is significant: it is an emotionally compelling piece of film-making that challenges us to rethink our preconceptions about Detroit.
These ad campaigns demonstrate the innovative and important ways in which businesses can contribute to positive urban change, and argue the case that companies have a responsibility to give back to their cities. The heightened profile that these films have given to cities and efforts to revitalize them is indeed impressive and inspiring. The fact that these ads are being seen around the world courtesy of the Cannes Festival will surely contribute to generating more positive attitudes towards urban life by showing that, even when cities are troubled and facing crises, people can come together to make a difference – albeit with a little support from the private sector.