Media: When times are tough, honesty is the best policy: In Cannes last week British adverts captured the most Lions for the third year running, writes Dominic Murphy

EVERY June the world's advertising community meets in Cannes to give out awards for the best commercials, buy each other drinks and generally do business (not necessarily in that order). The glitzy hotels along the mile-long strip of seafront known as La Croisette are booked up and taxi fares undergo massive inflation as the locals take advantage of the expense-account punters.

This is the International Advertising Film Festival, now in its 40th year and, in its own industry, accorded the same prestige as the main film festival. In a year that saw Britain for the third time running take the lion's share of the Lions awards for the best commercials, the profession that epitomised the worst excesses of the consumption-is-all creed of the last decade has found a new face for the Nineties. In tune with the 'caring, sharing' times of the style pundits, there is an emerging honesty in the way advertising communicates with its audience.

Of the British winners, it was Saatchi & Saatchi's spoof lifestyle commercial for Schweppes Tonic that best summed up the spirit of the occasion. This, an arty black-and-white film directed by Paul Weiland and starring John Cleese, involves a pretentious, nonsense dialogue; the scene culminates in Cleese experiencing a taste of tonic water only when it is thrown in his face. The commercial is a satirical rejection of Eighties style-over-content advertising; it simply asks the consumer to make a decision based on the product's taste.

Many non-British ads offered the same sentiment but in a more straightforward way. A gold-winning French campaign for Delacre Biscuits states why the quality patissiers do not make Le Rap music or forecast the weather: they are better at making biscuits.

A commercial for Bugle men's clothing won a silver for its film full of women. The ad self-consciously dispenses with men, arguing that its market prefers to see pictures of women. At least the United States' manufacturer is being honest and, to prove the point, the commercial ends with a quick shot of some earnest-looking men - perhaps they are attractive, but they certainly do not seem much fun.

A third, from Germany, suggests the viewer would not mind a cheap, studio- shot commercial: this would leave more money available to develop the advertiser's delicious chocolates.

As a result of the 23 judges going for the more honest approach, commercials that worked by lifestyle association and came from an award- winning pedigree did not fare well. 'Something like the Pepsi spot was voted down because of the large amounts of money being thrown around,' says Adrian Holmes, creative director of Lowe Howard-Spink, of London, and one of this year's judges.

Mr Holmes's agency was one of this year's successful Britons, with its popular Heineken commercial showing the lager helping a singer to get the blues. The British entry in this alcoholic drinks category was predictably strong, and a Gold Lion went to BMP DDB Needham's campaign for John Smith's Bitter, which included a ladybird love scene and an action replay of a bubble rising to the surface of a pint.

The winning British work was categorised by simple ideas made in an original way. A group of naturists talked about the advantages of nature's produce in a teasing commercial for Danepak Bacon from Howell Henry Chaldecott Lury. A repetitive film from Gold Greenlees Trott (now GGT) laboriously spelt out the reliability of Ariston appliances. Saatchi & Saatchi's interactive commercial for British Airways makes a memorable drama out of a simple plug for the airline's weekend breaks: a woman in a cinema audience spots her boyfriend on the screen with another woman and they all have an argument.

But perhaps the most popular winner was a moving film about child abuse for the NSPCC by the little-known Johnson Agency. Unfortunately, this weepy exercise in raising awareness using photographs and an emotive Chris Rea soundtrack ran for only two weeks: the hard-pressed NSPCC had to replace it with a fund-raising appeal.

The subject of funds is a delicate one, with the recession always on the tip of the ad person's tongue. Lack of funds has meant a decline in the number of British entries, from 404 (10.7 per cent of all the entries) in 1990 to 330 (8.7 per cent) this year. Still, the industry has held its own, taking 21 per cent of the awards, matched only by the US, which had more than twice as many entries as the British.

This, combined with a huge 32 per cent of the Gold Lions, would suggest that British advertising is best, except for one thing: Spain took away the Grand Prix, the prize for the best commercial of the year.

This eyebrow-raising piece is an 80- second spot from the Barcelona agency Casa-devall Pedreno & SPR for Rubber Cement Flexible Glue. Two young nuns, on a walk in the cloisters, discover that an embarrassing part of the anatomy of a statuette has dropped off. They carefully wrap the said item in a handkerchief before taking it to the Mother Superior, who, of course, has some Rubber Cement in her top drawer. After mending the statuette, one of the nuns mischievously demonstrates the cement's flexible powers by turning the tiny member to face heaven.

Next month the client will decide whether the commercial will be shown elsewhere in Europe. What cultures outside Spain will think is anybody's guess. Stay tuned to find out.

The author is the deputy editor of 'Creative Review'.