If you attend the British Advertising Awards at the Walker Art Center this year, you will learn at least three things: 1) Those Brits are as cheeky and droll as ever, 2) Virgin has a complete monopoly on all transit and media in England, and 3) meerkats are funnier than birds or polar bears—especially polar bears that fall out of the sky and go splat on the pavement.
This last comes courtesy of a public-service announcement by an outfit called planestupid.com, which, according to its website, is dedicated to "non-violent direct action" in protest of the expansion and proliferation of air travel. Polar bears falling out of the sky are supposed to dramatize the impact of jet travel on global warming, as well as the many reasons why polar bears should not try to fly. And, though the spot features a dozen or so lovable bears falling to their doom with a rather graphic thump, rest assured that there is no real violence in it. Those are digital polar bears, you see, and digital polar bears do not feel pain—only shame and regret for clogging traffic with their mutilated carcasses.
Presented annually by the Walker Art Center, The British Advertising Awards are inevitably the most popular event of the year at the Walker, and are best-known for being clever and funny. But when the British really want to drive home a message, they can get a little sick and twisted. Consider the in-flight safety video in which the cute stewardess is five years old and the pilot of the plane appears to be about three. I don't know about you, but I wouldn't want to fly on this airline. I know most jets are run by computers these days, but if this outfit is willing to let a three-year-old fly the plane, there's no telling what they'd do with all those polar bears in the cargo bay.
But seriously, these awards always include a few public service announcements that give you a glimpse of the sorts of social issues the British authorities must deal with as a result of drinking, drugs, and generous government entitlement programs. One ad this year is actually an overview of a series of ads in which the viewer gets to choose the outcome of various situations, starting with the decision to take a kitchen knife with them before heading out into the night for an evening of drunken debauchery. If you, the viewer, click "take the knife," and follow the prompts through a decision chain of escalating stupidity, you will end up stabbing a mean-looking black guy in the chest—which will piss him off, resulting in your immediate death. Lesson: Leave the knives at home, kids. (That's why we Yanks always carry a gun.)
Last week, in a preview, KARE 11 spooked a lot of people by informing the public that this year's program is two hours long. It's not; the show runs more like an hour and a half, but that's still longer than usual. There are plenty of entertaining ads to choose from, though, so don't worry—the trauma of those skydiving polar bears will soon be displaced by the hilarity of several monster.com commercials depicting various less-than-savory job opportunities, a multitude of Virgin commercials for a frightening number of businesses, and the aforementioned meerkats, who are the stars of this year's show. The meerkats are cute and personable in a Geico gecko kind of way. They also speak with a Russian accent and look funny when dressed in little coats. Pure advertising genius.
As usual, though, the top prize-winners aren't necessarily the best ads in the bunch. Clearly, this year's winner should have been the commercial, for Weetabix, which involved a talking horse, a heartbreaking story of triumph over great odds, and some impressively silly digital animation. Alas, the Weetabix spot was produced by the same agency that produced the polar-bear massacre, so maybe the judges were doling out some retribution. Who knows—English politics can be quite complicated.
This year's grand prize went to a commercial for T-Mobile that featured a couple hundred people in a train station suddenly turning into a flash mob and dancing to an elaborately choreographed series of dance moves—all communicated, presumably, through messages received on their cellphones. Aside from the fact that most of those people probably had Virgin mobile as their cellphone carrier, and that flash mobs were so 2006, and that all the people who participated in the flash mob were probably late for their trains, and that Catherine Zeta Jones was nowhere to be seen, it was a great ad. But the grand prize? I think not.
Don't take my word for it, though. Go see for yourself. But be prepared to run out and buy some Weetabix—whatever that is.
The British Advertising Awards continue at the Walker Art Center through Jan. 2, 2011.