Since dinosaurs ruled the earth, Procter & Gamble has focused its advertising almost exclusively on the product proposition – regarding this as the sole route to a brand’s bottom line, unencumbered by deviations such as humor or subtlety.

Few could deny the effectiveness of this credo – or its ennui. But smoke signals recently emerging from Cincinnati suggest this doctrine may no longer be advertising's equivalent of Mount Rushmore.

It was revealed Thursday that P&G has booked twenty – yes twenty – of its senior marketers into that annual saturnalia of narcissism, the Cannes Lions International Advertising Festival. Heading the P&G delegation is global marketing officer James R Stengel, no less – further evidence, believe industry observers, that the globe’s largest advertiser may be lightening-up.

Stengel, appointed the company’s senior marketing executive in August 2001, believes P&G’s ‘better than Brand X’ approach has passed its sell-by date. In a gesture of humility hitherto unknown at the event, he rejected an invitation to address the weeklong gathering. “We’re going to Cannes to learn,” he averred, “not to lecture to agencies about how to make good ads”.

Since Stengel took office there have been cracks in P&G’s ossified ad approach. One ad by Grey Global Group for Lacoste fragrance features a reclining male nude; Leo Burnett’s US Pampers ads focus not on staying dry but how kids view the world at different ages; while in the UK the same agency hucksters Daz washing powder with a touch of racy humor centring around Mom’s reaction to the discovery of her son’s girlfriend’s discarded (and none-too-white) bra.

All would have been anathema pre-Stengel. But the globe hasn’t shifted in its orbit and P&G is still P&G. So business, not fun, tops its Cannes agenda. “No sunbathing!” says Stengel – with the merest flicker of a smile.

Each delegate is required to keep a personal journal in which he or she will record observations and ‘action steps’ to recommend to divisions back at the corporate ranch. They also have to view every ad selected as a category finalist!

The journals and their conclusions will form the basis of a future ‘Stengel Marketing Hour,’ a quarterly webcast to the company's 3,500 marketing executives worldwide.

Data sourced from: The Wall Street Journal Online; additional content by WARC staff