The British Arrows Awards (formerly known by their more explicit, though now slightly less accurate, name: the British Television Advertising Awards) sound like the holiday tradition of choice for the ironic hipsters in Minneapolis and other cities where they’re screened. In fact, though, Charles Dickens looks like Harmony Korine in comparison to the go-for-the-jugular emotional appeals of these ads.
A young girl is slowly hanged by a noose that tightens every time she looks at her phone (a PSA for cyberbullying awareness). A bunny is sad at losing his friend the bear during hibernation season (an ad for a department store). A little boy falls out of a tree and dies in his desperate father’s arms (a PSA for first-aid education). An elderly man and his friendly dog go on a stroll—to visit his wife’s grave (an ad for dog food). Each of these scenarios unfolds in about a minute, in shots crafted with Spielbergian economy to draw viewers in immediately.
There’s always a temptation to read something of the zeitgeist from the ads selected by the judging panel each year. I don’t know if the panel was stacked or what, but this is definitely the Year of the Old Guy. Elderly men show up in these ads again and again—sometimes poignantly (the dog food ad mentioned above), sometimes triumphantly (a Nike ad starring a septuagenarian marathoner), sometimes humorously (dancing at holiday parties in an ad for a supermarket-sponsored film about British families celebrating Christmas). No doubt sex still sells, but there’s more wrinkled than toned flesh on display in this year’s Arrow-winning ads; even Garrison Keillor shows up, voicing a Honda ad largely with ruminative, wordless murmuring.
A subplot of the presentation, especially for those of us who work in media, is the changing nature of the ad industry. For a few years there it seemed as though interactive ads designed for the Internet were a growing trend, but this year there’s only one representative of that genre: a moving ad about what happens when ex-cons aren’t given second chances, with a man becoming increasingly despondent when users try to skip past his story. What’s big this year is a different sort of engagement: ads come with hashtags, or in one case a call to “upload a photo of your moment” (that would be: your moment overcoming cancer) as advertisers try to engage that second screen.
When the 74-minute parade of ads ends, your first reaction might be to sit back and let your breath out, to recover from the bombardment of intense multi-sensory stimuli. It might initially seem as though the ads had tumbled by in a blur, but then individual moments come back to you—and keep coming back to you. Having followed the awards for several years now, I can still easily recall the most memorable spots from across that span (even if not always what they were selling).
Funniest: the Queen Elizabeth sock puppet. Most harrowing: the de-finned shark dying on the ocean floor. Saddest: the ad for cancer research, where elderly couples celebrated their mutual survival…in all but one case. I still drive more carefully because of the ad that animated how your organs turn to soup when you get in a high-speed car accident, and I’ll never forget those damn meerkats from ComparetheMarket.com—though I had to Google the name of the site they were shilling.
This year’s award-winners will screen at the Walker Art Center from December 5 through January 4. It’s hard not to come away feeling good about human creativity and the human experience in all its shades and seasons—especially if you’re an old guy.