To watch this year’s finalists and award-winners for the British Arrows is to be reminded of why the media machine has become known as “the spin cycle.” After over an hour of video ads for everything from diet soda to child abuse prevention, you’re left feeling slightly buffeted — and yet strangely exhilarated.
The British Arrows are annual honors for U.K. video advertisements, the best of which are being screened Dec. 4 though Jan. 3 at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. Settling in to watch a bunch of British ads has become a beloved annual tradition for many Minnesota families: sort of steering into the skid when it comes to criticism that the Christmas season has become too commercialized.
Of course, the fact that many of the products being advertised aren’t available in the States lends the whole presentation an almost fantastical quality, as Midwestern viewers are virtually transported to an alternate universe where football (as in soccer) is a massive popular attraction and where chains of stores with quaint names like “Sainsbury’s” sell…something.
It hasn’t always been clear exactly what products are being sold by some of the ads, which can resemble artsy short films with ambiguous endings, but this year — whether by fashion or because the more abstract approach didn’t move product — that’s by and large not an issue. It’s all too clear what each 30- or 60-second chunk of footage is selling, and it’s disorienting to be whipped in short order from a humorous spot advertising Kahlua to a sobering commercial warning about the hazards of drunk driving.
These filmmakers are all very good at grabbing your attention by whatever means necessary, and some of these ads invite McLuhan-era critiques about the power of television. For example, what are we to make of the short film about the Christmas Truce of 1914 that turns out to be an ad for…chocolate?
Then there’s the highly dubious documentary short that demonstrates how passersby intervene to stop a man beating a woman, but not a woman beating a man. 40% of domestic violence is perpetrated on men, we’re told; one wonders if the most constructive way to address that concern is to invite guilt regarding the plight of well-dressed gentlemen being lightly assailed by much smaller women in public parks in broad daylight.
Of course, it’s not the 1960s any more, and the Arrows are increasingly pervaded with a concern about the diminishing power of what McLuhan called “cool” media. Today’s advertisers are looking for interactivity (or what we in the digital biz like to call “engagement”), and some of this year’s most highly-honored ads use prerecorded video as just one element of dynamic campaigns — with social shares as the coin of the realm.
The fact that the success of a campaign can now so readily be quantified — as opposed to the days of Don Draper, when executives had to somehow extrapolate exactly how many soda buyers were trying to Buy the World a Coke in response to a TV ad — is starting to change the meaning of the Arrows. No doubt any admaker would welcome the approbation of peers, but play counts and click rates don’t lie.
At the end of this year’s presentation, I thought back on, after several years of keeping up with the Arrows, which ads have stuck with me. Certainly the PSA that illustrated internal organs bursting against broken ribs in an auto accident — that one comes back to me every time I have a close call on the road. Then there was the horrific ad showing a shark abandoned, finless, on the ocean floor; I haven’t ordered shark since seeing that. The PG Tips sock monkey as Queen Elizabeth is probably still my favorite ad of all time.
This year as always, the British Arrows make for oddly apt holiday viewing in that they dramatize the highs and the lows of the human experience — and tie them to the mundane realities that light up, or foul up, our lives. You’re probably not going to personally defend against the Dark Side with a lightsaber this December, but you’re likely going to visit a drugstore, have a drink, hit the gym, and hunker down with the humble comforts that truly make the season special.