OPINION: Cowen on ... Renault Clio

Considering the World Cup came to an end last Sunday, it might feel a bit late in the day to be picking out one of the summer's football ads to write about this week. But the fact is that if Publicis' current Renault Clio spot ends its own run this weekend, I'll be a bit disappointed. Not quite as emotional as David Seaman, but mildly let down nonetheless.

Okay, the Thierry Henry ad isn't the greatest of the year. Okay, it's about as likely to pick up a Pencil as Thierry is to be awarded the tournament's Golden Boot, but of the bewildering number of campaigns linking products to football over the past two months, this is by far the most successful.

And it's successful in a fashion that can't even be damaged by Les Bleus' failure.

The reason for that success, in my view at least, is that it's the ad that has made the greatest effort to move beyond the basic, run-of-the-mill, ball-clogger's endorsement. It's the one that has thought furthest beyond nutmegs, bicycle kicks and winners' medals when it comes to working out why a star is relevant to its product. And, despite the fact that Henry was reportedly paid £1 million to appear in it, this is the ad that has least to do with transfer fees and most to do with advertising.

The script fills out Henry as a character and an individual and the performance that he brings to it is charismatic and wholly believable. The combination draws out the idea of a smooth, confident Frenchman comfortable with his British surroundings - which is just about as good a brief for the Renault Clio as I can think of. It's certainly far more of a complete, and therefore natural, fit than the Fiat ad starring Francesco Totti, whose logic begins and ends with the fact that both are Italian.

The value of Renault's football star endorsement is largely irrespective of the World Cup, whereas that of Fiat is wholly dependent on the big tournament. As a result, the latter can put forward no more convincing case for its product than a lame football scenario. This would feel like a flop even if the Azzuri hadn't gone out in round two - not least because whoever wrote it clearly has no idea what offside means.

But it's not only Fiat who ought to learn from Renault's example during this World Cup. The sheer weight of football stars appearing in campaigns during the last month has tended to nullify the impact of each one - unless somebody in the agency is prepared to go the extra mile in bringing them alive.

Nike may have scored by including two Brazilians in its line-up, but how much more effective would they have been if they hadn't been swamped in a sea of fast-cutting images of other players we vaguely recognise?

Adidas created more impact with its giant posters of Beckham than it did with its complex, subtly star-filled "footballitis spots. It may have ascribed a cheesy, heroic character to Becks but at least it gave him a character - and one, let's face it, most of us believe in. And it was Eric Cantona's enigmatic, moody persona that gave Nike such a hit with the mother of all footballing ads. I mean, can anyone remember any other player from "good versus evil"?

Football is entering the mainstream and expanding beyond its core audience but this shouldn't be a licence for advertisers to simply fill the screen with players. Instead it should give them the confidence to explore the nuances of the game's stars the way Renault has done this summer. This applies as much to those flogging sports products as to those selling cars, pasta or Pepsi. Let's hope that by the 2004 European Championships the game has moved on.

Dead cert for a Pencil? Je regrette, mais non.
File under ... F for flair.
What would the chairman's wife say? Why don't you buy me nice striped
shirts like that?