A look in the rearview mirror at the Titanium Lion

February 27, 2009 at 1:30 am Leave a comment

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This article was originally published in Campaign Magazine in London on July 21, 2006. In it I beat up the judges of the Titanium Lion at Cannes pretty comprehensively. I thought it might be interesting to take a look about two and a half years later to see how my argument has held up. Judging from the way 2006’s winning concept has vanished off the face of the earth, I’d say I got it right. What’s still not right, however, is the Titanium Lion, which seems to be judged by different criteria every year–not the way you build the prestige of an award or create a standard of excellence for the industry.

Tarnished Titanium

The judges at Cannes have perfected reverse-alchemy. They have invented a way to turn titanium into tin. They did this by awarding the hitherto-prestigious Titanium Lion to “Design Barcode,” a piffling idea from Japan. 

Here’s how it works. If you’re selling surfboards, put a little surfer on the product’s barcode and have him ride it like a wave. No, I’m not kidding; that’s all there is to it. It is the conceptual equivalent of dotting your “i”s with smiley faces.

Many are blaming the judges for choosing to honor such a lightweight idea, and I think they deserve it. But in our haste to point fingers, let us not forget to blame whoever wrote the rules for this years Titanium competition. When you read them, you will see that they are the product of a confused mind. Compare these passages from the rules on the Cannes Lions website. First: “Of course it’s [the idea that is] integrated. That goes without saying. Which is why this year we’ve removed the “integrated tag.”

And second: “Also this year, Titanium entries are not restricted to a set number of executions or types of channel. There’s no limit on the lengths of execution on the media used. Anything goes. For example, there may be a great media idea that only uses one channel–but if the idea is strong, it’s in.”

My dictionary defines “integrate” as follows: “to form, coordinate or blend multiple elements into a functioning or unified whole; to unite with something else. Perhaps the judges would argue that Design Barcode’s genius was to “integrate” the barcode into existing packaging. That’s like arguing you’ve “integrated” a sound effect into a TV ad.

The rules are incoherent. Perhaps the judges took that fact as carte blanche to do whatever they wanted. Theories abound.

In any case, it’s worth talking about who the client for “Design Barcode” is. It’s Design Barcode. With the exception of the entertainment industry, we already work in the most self-congratulatory business in the world. Is turning what was once regarded as one of the most prestigious awards in advertising into an award for self-promotion really a good idea?

Consider Design Barcode (the product) from a client’s point of view. Yes, it’s mildly amusing, but since Design Barcode (the company) owns the idea, it’s not proprietary to any one brand. Every time a new brand decides to put a Design Barcode on its packaging, the value of every other Design Barcode decreases, and frankly, the value was limited to begin with. This is not an industry-changing idea. This is the wind from the wings of a moth.

The Titanium Lion is tarnished. Cannes may have to move on to a different metal next year. Unfortunately, I’m not sure anyone will really want to win a Tin Lion.

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