Cannes Lions’ legendary presenter, Juan Señor, began the Entertainment Lions awards gala review by showcasing this category as the one pushing the boundaries of our industry today. Clearly, he realised that this is one of the few ways advertising can escape from its current and rather tight corner, especially in light of the unstoppable growth in consumption of media funded by subscription rather than by advertising.
In a jury made up of 16 diverse professionals – from LEGO, Marvel and Vice, to (branded or not) content producers, and creative agencies like TBWA\Media Arts Lab, Adam&EveDDB and our own – it was surprisingly easy for us to define from the very beginning what we were looking for: “something that is worth people’s time (or money) and brand investment.”
To that point, a feature film based on a character created by Pepsi and starring some true NBA legends (Uncle Drew, 2018), which earned more than $40 million at the box office, was only good enough for a silver Lion. That is how high the bar is being set for branded entertainment, at least in the English-speaking world.
If there is one thing that continues to be driven home across all categories, it is the need for brands to take sides; to take a stand and take on the role that used to be played by the state or activism. Brands need to look for ways to have a positive impact on the world and tell the stories their behaviours give them a legitimate reason to tell.
Enter this year’s Grand Prix. It was awarded to just such a proposal – a project that proves that any brand can tell brave stories, if its marketers are brave enough.
'5B' – the title of this winning documentary – was also the name given to the first hospital ward for AIDS patients. In this San Francisco hospital, they were fighting not only against the disease, but also against intolerance and homophobia. At a time (1983) when they still didn’t even know exactly how the virus was transmitted, the nurses demonstrated a profound empathy for the suffering of the sick – who were living in isolation, without any physical contact – and decided to take the risk of touching them, hug them to ease their pain.
This is a story that hooks you from the 1st till the 95th minute, orchestrated in such a way that it almost feels like fiction. A story about human contact and compassion that comes out strongly against fear and intolerance. And it is a story told by a manufacturer of medical devices and pharmaceuticals conveying the core concept of caring for people. Bravo.
Beyond the storyline, it is important to focus on how the brand is introduced, and why it chose to do so in that particular manner. Johnson & Johnson didn’t have to do any kind of product placement. It limited itself to “commission” the film and being recognised at the start of the opening credits, capitalising on its authorship through PR activities promoting the documentary’s launch. What could be seen as an apparent step back in visibility within the content itself is actually a key step towards being able to sneak into the distribution channels of the entertainment industry without having to invest in it. Beyond that: making their money back. Johnson & Johnson presented the documentary at the Cannes (Film!) Festival in 2018, and sold the distribution rights to Verizon Media. The film is now being premiered at 400 cinemas. We’ll probably be able to see it soon on VOD subscription platforms – the very same platforms that are pushing us to reinvent ourselves.