Sociologists caution against reading too much into a society’s cultural products, be they books or banner ads, but it’s impossible not to see each year’s selection of British Arrows award-winning ads as a barometer of the masses’ mood.
When the annual parade of video spots first gained Stateside popularity through holiday season screenings at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, British humor was a principal draw. Side-splitting ads have remained part of the mix, but over the decades the program has become more wide-ranging. The internet became a major medium, digital effects became routine, and onscreen representation of the nation’s diversity increased dramatically.
There’s also been a gradual deflation of the optimism following the end of the Cold War. Hot wars, global warming, resurgent authoritarianism, and the coronavirus pandemic have all contributed to a more somber mood among consumers. In marketing circles, authenticity and transparency have become watchwords for companies hoping to convince consumers they’re committed to an open and honest relationship in these challenging times.
This is all to say that this year’s British Arrows are a little moody, conveying the sense of a capitalist economy where we’re all holding hands but we can’t say whether it’s out of genuine attraction or sheer panic. I only caught genuine giggles from one ad, a Virgin Media spot involving a highly mobile highland cow that feels akin to both the legendary Cadbury gorilla ad (2007) and the Dirty Dancing riff from 2017 that used He-Man and Skeletor to boost a price comparison site. There’s just something about the feathered majesty of ’80s soft rock that makes for the funniest ads imaginable.
Another Arrows tradition that will hopefully never die is the preponderance of well-crafted short films that keep you guessing until the end regarding what product, cause, or habit is being sold. This year’s biggest splash of cold water comes courtesy of an utterly endearing montage of goofy dad moments that turns out to be a fundraiser for prostate cancer research. This year’s Ad of the Year has a similar arc, but onscreen didactics set you up for that one.
Of course, no Arrows selection would be complete without the excruciating running gag series that somehow charms the judges. (Remember “Compare the Meerkat,” anyone?) This year it’s a campaign for the free streaming service ITVX, with clueless casting agents prompting A-list actors to enact a maddening array of different scenarios by way of illustrating just how varied viewers’ options are. It smacks of insider humor, and precious little of it.
For all the confounding ads, though, there’s always that one that sticks with you and threatens to change your behavior for the long term. I don’t know how many times, when snapping my seat belt, I’ve thought of the infamously graphic ad showing what damage a crash can do to internal organs. This year, a pastiche of horror movies grabs attention with images of people suffering the “octocurse” after eating octopus — an animal explained, at the end of PETA’s ad, to be “extremely intelligent, sensitive creatures.” Will I think twice, moving forward, before becoming “basically a cannibal” and eating octopus? Yes.
This year’s ads will be screened at the Walker from December 1-31. Missing from this year’s selection is the 2022 holiday advertisement for the John Lewis stores, a perennial tearjerker — though “The Beginner” was honored with a bronze award. The program does include a moving missed-connection saga that turns out to be an ad for Britain’s National Lottery. What can I say? It’s a winner.
Image: Virgin Media’s “Highland Rider,” courtesy Walker Art Center