Purpose Out, and Humor In for Cannes Lions Winners

Every year, the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity brings the industry together to learn about the latest research, best practices and trends, and celebrate the brands and creatives that are making entertaining, unique work. Last year, the festival received more than 25,000 entries from 87 countries, and saw an 84% increase in the number of entries for the Creative Effectiveness Lions.

Once again, System1 tested the Cannes Film Lions Grand Prix, Gold, Silver and Bronze winners from the US and UK to uncover whether the creative that resonated with the jurors was also liked by the general public. Our Test Your Ad platform measures the emotional response viewers have to ads to predict their commercial impact. We know that the more people feel, the more they buy. Thus, uncovering what people feel when they see an ad gives marketers a clear understanding of the short- and long-term potential of their creative.  

The good news coming out of Cannes this year – marketers are trying to make people laugh again. Read on to learn more about the brands that won with jurors and the public, and our guidance on how to leverage humor effectively.

A Laughing Matter

The major trend in 2023 was the continuing return of humor as an award-winning element. Over half the Film Lions winners (52%) were intentionally funny, a jump from 43% last year, and a Film Grand Prix went to Apple’s “RIP, Leo”, a darkly comic take of a lizard and his petsitter.

The turn to humor comes partly at the expense of brand purpose, which has been one of the dominant and most controversial elements in advertising for the last 5-10 years. Last year, five award-winning ads employed brand purpose – defined as a purpose-driven ad for a brand outside the charity/NGO sector. This year, only one award-winning ad fit that definition, Apple’s “The Greatest”, a Silver Lion winner focusing on its work adapting its devices for customers with disabilities.

“The Greatest” was a success with general audiences as well as juries, with its inspirational stories and addictive soundtracks landing a 3.8-Star score out of a possible 5.9 on our Star Rating scale. But it was the only non-humorous ad to score 3-Stars or more on Test Your Ad.

So, who managed to please the juries and public alike? The highest-scoring awarded ad, McDonalds’ eyebrow-driven “Raise Your Arches”, hit 4.7-Stars with its delightfully whimsical office story, whose eyebrow meme managed to march its way into the UK’s wider pop culture. The Bronze Lion winner was the only 4-Star ad among this year’s awarded work.

Apple managed two 3-Star ads, with “The Greatest” and the slapstick school race in “Action Mode”. Marmite’s “Baby Scan” was another hilarious fake-documentary in its “Love It Or Hate It” campaign, and Uber Eats’ bizarrely comic dancer in “Cowboy” also both got 3-Stars.

All these ads show that fun ideas, surreal executions and edgy humor can have broad public appeal as well as tickle the Cannes juries’ fancy.

The Right Type of Humor

But looking at the overall scores this year, it’s clear those ads are exceptions. Despite the shift in approach away from purpose and towards humor, award winners still aren’t testing better than the average video ad. Winners on average hit 2.1-Stars on Test Your ad compared to the global average of 2.2-Stars.

The results show the one problem with humor as an effectiveness tactic. People need to find it funny. The Cannes-winning ads are humorous but time and again there is a lot of negative emotion mixed in. That might be sadness (Apple’s “RIP Leon”), fear (Blockbuster’s “Until The Bitter End”) or even anger and disgust (“Pot Noodle’s “Nothing Fills A Hole Like A Pot Noodle”). When those negative aspects influence people’s overall response and crowd out positive emotion, the ads become less effective.

Negative emotions have a big role to play in effective, emotional advertising, but a lot of the award-winners push the negative elements hard and fail to resolve them early or well enough. In a nutshell, edgy humor that makes marketers laugh often fails to connect with the world outside the marketing bubble. The emphasis on entertaining is a big step in the right direction. But to entertain for commercial gain, juries need to understand that the world doesn’t share a marketer’s edgy sense of humor. McDonalds, Apple and Marmite show you can do surreal, satirical and slapstick comedy and not only win a Lion but win over the broader audience as well.


To view how all the US and UK winning ads performed, visit System1’s Test Your Ad platform and filter by country (Global) and category (Cannes Lions 2023) within the Topical Ads tab.