Every December, the Walker Art Center pays homage to the art of advertising by screening the British Advertising Awards, an entertaining compendium of the year's best telly ads from across the pond—where, as everyone knows, everything is cleverer, due to the fact that drinking heavily at lunch in England is highly encouraged.
This year the event has been renamed the British Arrows Awards, partly to communicate how much advertising has in common with the sport of archery, and partly to confuse us Yanks into thinking the show is something it's not. Which, come to think of it, is the point of advertising, so perhaps the name change makes more sense than I'm giving it credit for.
Actually (though I don't know how the word "arrow" accomplishes this), it's to account for the fact that television advertising is no longer confined to the TV—it also includes social media, public outreach, user-generated content, and other forms of communication integrated into a coordinated, cohesive campaign. For example, one entry is a campaign for Philips televisions that starts with the company asking six top directors to create six different movies from the same lines of dialogue. The films are submitted to short-film festivals and put on the Internet, after which the company invites the public to submit their own films made from the same snippet of dialogue. Hundreds of submissions are received, and they too are shown on the internet and at film festivals all year long, creating a buzz and presumably selling a few Philips TVs along the way.
If you attend this event every year, as I do, you begin to notice some recurring themes as well. One is that the Russian-speaking meerkats are back and as funny as ever. Another is that British commercials for American products are invariably more entertaining than commercials for the same products here. (Witness the Nike ad revealing that the "air" in Nike's Air shoes is collected via breathing apparatuses from such sports stars as John McEnroe and Maria Sharapova, and injected directly into the shoes to give them the awesome power Nike owners have come to expect. Compared to the "just do it" commercials we get here, it makes our ad guys look mighty lazy.
Another thing I also find fascinating is the Public Service Announcements, which always provide a slightly disturbing peek at the social problems British officials are apparently dealing with. Last year, evidently, many people burned their homes to a crisp by leaving their Christmas lights on overnight. How else to explain the commercial of a house going up in flames to the tune of "Silent Night," with the final phrase "sleep in heavenly sleep" fading out while the house is completely engulfed in fire? Murders involving apathetic bystanders also appear to be a problem, judging from a multimedia campaign put together by the metro police to educate young people about the many ways they can be prosecuted for murder, even if they didn’t pull the trigger.
The Brits also seem to have superhuman patience when it comes to finding out what the commercial they are watching is actually selling. These "WTF" commercials usually involve some dramatic setup that makes no sense whatsoever, and sometimes doesn't even make sense when you know what product the ad is for. A classic example is one this year of a bunch of human angels (sexy women with wings) falling out of the sky all over the city, and collectively converging on a scraggly-looking guy unlocking a motor scooter. The angels then start throwing their halos to the ground to show the moto-scooting hipster how much sinning they're prepared to do with him. And all of this is because he is wearing a deodorant so powerful it will "make angels fall." Honestly, it makes our typical Axe commercial look like Shakespeare.
The same device can be used very effectively, though—and this year's Best Commercial of the Year is a good example. It's another PSA intended to address the problem that a third of the kids in Britain have no idea where bacon comes from. It features a group of school kids being given a tour of a working farm given by a tour guide that tells them nothing but complete nonsense: that chickens have eight legs, for example (which is why you see them in packages of eight at the grocery store), and there are three different breeds of chicken: garlic, lemon, and fried. The explanations get increasingly ridiculous, my favorite being how pigs fart broccoli stems that are delivered to your house by eagles who drop them down the chimney—and that's how you get yogurt.
For once, I agree with the jury's grand prize selection this year. Which is why I am going to go home tonight, open the fireplace flue and get me some Yoplait.
The British Advertising (ahem, Arrows) awards are being shown at the Walker Art Center from Dec. 2-31. There are shows almost every day during that period, but tickets go fast, so don't procrastinate. Walkerart.org. P.S. If you can't get tix, here's a sampling of what you missed: