The best of British advertising — or from anywhere, based on the compelling commercials featured in the 73-minute reel — began its annual Walker Art Center screening on Friday. While the British Arrows Awards aren’t as prominent as the Tonys, Emmys or Oscars, this year’s winners show once again that advertising can be just as creative as plays, shows and films.
And, as evidenced by some of the themes, just as insightful.
U.K. society (and as a result, politics) and even national identity are in flux, in part because of Brexit, which is just as divisive now as it was when the referendum on European Union membership took place last year.
“Leave” voters did so for many reasons. One was a pushback against the complications coming from E.U. bureaucracy. So simplicity was a recurrent motivation and motif behind many commercials. Like one from McDonalds’ McCafe outlet, which to the tune of the Brit hit “Madness” shows quick cut scenes of overpriced and over-the-top European-style coffeehouses. “I just want coffee,” a flustered customer plaintively pleas. “McCafe. Great-tasting coffee. Simple,” goes the tagline, which might connect with consumers on this side of the pond, too.
Ikea reprises the theme in three spots that show how everyday design fixes can make life simpler, and better. “The Wonderful Everyday,” the tagline reads.
But of course everyday is not so simple, nor so wonderful. Cancer can intervene, as shown in two moving spots. One, for Cancer Research UK, shows a doctor singing “head, shoulders, knees and toes” with a bedridden kid. Another, for insurer BUPA, tracks a middle-aged female cancer survivor edging back onto a dance floor.
Some afflictions are more social than medical, but require intervention nonetheless. That’s the message from the Charitable Trust in a thought-provoking ad about texting and driving that equates the dangers of distracted driving to those of drunken driving. Indeed, it seems to be a good start to an imperative campaign, let alone a social movement.
Another piercing public-service spot comes from the Prince’s Trust. It shows the parallel lives of a woman texting to arrange for an 8 p.m. visitor. A split screen displays the duality of the woman preparing in a bright apartment with anticipation or in a bleak flat with dread. The arrivals reveal the mystery. The need for rescuing troubled youth, however, is no mystery. “Without your support, a generation of young lives would be very different,” reads the ending caption, capturing society’s shared responsibility.
The duality displayed in that spot is reflected in an Amazon commercial that shows an aging imam and vicar visiting as old friends. Together, they lament their bad knees, products of praying and aging. Separately, they order knee braces for each other. The spot promotes Amazon, of course, but also a more unified U.K. than the one reflected in Brexit, which passed in part because of an anti-immigration backlash.
Rather than recoiling from that backlash, three Arrows pierce the public’s consciousness on refugee resettlement. One, from UNICEF, is the best of the reel. Called “Harry and Ahmed,” it shows an aging man recalling his childhood refugee crisis after fleeing Nazi violence while a current-day Syrian boy narrates his harrowing escape and displacement. The eras may differ, but not the need: “Support Refugee Children,” it implores. Similar searing spots from Amnesty International and Save the Children show that global woes won’t go away because of Brexit, and that indeed Brits must integrate international arrivals despite the U.K.’s current inward emphasis.
Home is shown in more traditional ways, too, including a cute commercial for Heathrow Airport — an unusual venue for a warm and fuzzy feeling. But that’s what’s accomplished in a spot showing two teddy bears dressed as an elderly English couple arriving from a flight and going through customs, baggage claim and arrivals. “Coming Home. The Best Gift of All,” the tagline states, even if Brits can’t really seem to agree on who should be allowed to call the island nation home.
A more traditional British internationalism is evident in one ambitious commercial. But tellingly, it reflects on Britain’s earlier 20th-century history (and Burberry’s role in shaping it), from polar exploring to pioneer aviating to fighting in the trenches of World War I.
Today’s British ethos may be less confident, but the country’s creativity is constant. Sure, there are a few misses in the Arrows quiver, including an unending, unfunny H & M spot with Kevin Hart and David Beckham.
But celebrities are a tried and tired approach anyway, especially compared with riveting real lives. Such as the ones featured in the Arrows’ “commercial of the year.” It’s a tune-in ad for the Rio Paralympics that not only features amazing, brave athletes, but disabled people everywhere doing, well, in Ikea’s words, the wonderful everyday. Set to the beat of “Yes, I Can” — played by a band with an armless drummer, among other feats — it’s an uplifting look at an uncertain time. “We’re the Superhumans,” the tagline states. In many ways, that describes the commercials, too: super, and human.
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:10 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.