OPINION: Cowen on ... O2

There's a heart-in-the-mouth moment at the opening of VCCP's 60-second launch ad for O2. Not so much an awe-filled: "Wow!

More of an: "Oh my God! Please don't do that!

It's the point at which a man and boy appear, floating in circles around a patch of light, eyes wide and lips pulled back in dumbstruck wonder. For a terrible moment the agency seems to have taken a leaf out of the compendium of basic dotcom errors. Here we are again, with an ad that assumes our near-spiritual reverence for a technology yet provides little or no justification for such feelings.

Then there's the endline, which does little to allay these concerns. O2's teasing print work promised a "new current of mobile communication", but "See what you can do

doesn't communicate anything beyond a vague sense of self-empowerment. Nothing is put forward to really substantiate the bold claims of the initial posters. None of the services or offers referred to in the launch spot - or the follow-up product ads - feel all that new.

But then, it's hardly fair to criticise VCCP for the lack of ammunition stocked in its client's locker. If this campaign feels less dynamic than WCRS's "The future's bright ...

then that's partly due to it lacking the support of a genuine breakthrough such as Orange's billing-per-second behind it. If it feels less of a challenger-branding statement than Young & Rubicam's "See red, then see Virgin Mobile

then that's in part because of the former BT Cellnet lacking the unique cost structure that Virgin enjoys through its partnership with T-Mobile.

The flops of the WAP and 2.5G technologies have taught mobile operators the risks of making extravagant promises on which they could struggle to deliver. Brands are busily staking out an identity ahead of the eagerly awaited wave of 3G technology, yet none have dared to make any specific claims about it. For those operators lacking Orange's pioneering heritage this has led to an explosion of meaningless straplines. Let's face it, next to Vodafone's "How are you?

and T-Mobile's "Get more", O2's brand positioning feels positively heavyweight.

But the glib efforts that its competitors have come up with over the past 12 months aren't the only reason that I'm happy to give O2 the benefit of the doubt for now. Dragging this campaign over the coals for its lack of a revolutionary brand positioning is like berating David Beckham for his choice of underwear - it's a perfectly valid criticism but it misses the real point. In it's soothing, intriguing, Blue Planet-style visuals, VCCP has put forward an art director's solution that sidesteps the need to put the brand's credibility on the line - yet. It's a limited ambition but it's been admirably fulfilled.

A visual idea as unique and pervasive as this lends otherwise undeserved weight to the fairly basic product offerings that O2 is flogging here.

Furthermore, it's contrast to the hectic, in-your-face, technology-obsessed ads of Vodafone and T-Mobile amounts to a lifestyle message in itself.

Okay, the idea of a network that functions as a natural extension of human behaviour has already been sewn up by Orange - but only in the UK. Across Europe, things are up for grabs - and O2's visually driven message is likely to translate far more effectively across language barriers than the images of rock stars and footballers that fill the international work of Orange's other rivals.

All of this only delays the need for O2 to deliver a confident, genuine point of difference. However, it does buy the brand time and potential international reach until the advent of 3G allows it to base such a positioning on genuine innovation.

After the inconsistencies of BT Cellnet's advertising and amid the jitters currently infecting the mobile market, that's perhaps all we should have expected.