British ad awards back in town

  • Article by: COLIN COVERT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 2, 2010 - 3:46 PM

Even in a down economy, they're are less hard-sell than in the United States.

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Anchor Free Range Butter's parody of "The Great Escape"

Photo: Walker Art Center,

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Walker Art Center's annual presentation of the British Television Advertising Awards reliably offers some of the best short-form filmmaking around -- even if it is all crafted to persuade you to buy Guinness and McDonald's and T-Mobile. A perennial sellout (pun, sorry), it proves that a reel of commercial messages can be creative, provocative and even beautiful enough to pull in paying audiences.

But what of this year's entries, crafted in a violently re-jiggered era of consumer frugality, scattering audiences, shrinking TV ad budgets and shifting resources? In 2009 the United Kingdom became the first major economy in which advertisers spent more on Internet advertising than TV messages. It shows.

The creativity remains, but the effects of purse-tightening on the embattled British TV advertising sector are clear. This year's theme could be "Marketing on a Budget." The flamboyant, must-see cinematic mini-epics of years past are scarce.

In their place is a reliance on such time-honored gimmicks as celebrities (look: Tom Jones! Keira Knightley!), cute kiddies, talking animals and jingles. This being Britain, some jingles are disguised as poetry; several are quite sophisticated.

British ads are markedly less utilitarian and benefit-oriented than their hard-sell U.S. counterparts. They're all about flaunting hip imagery and implanting mood associations. Some verge on complete irrelevance to the product. Even sworn advertising haters would be hard-pressed to resent the zany Coca-Cola spot that features a pipe organ powered by creepy little mutant gophers. A bohemian keyboardist plays by hand, soda squirts into the creatures' mouths, and they sing in delight. Some viewers may have an adverse reaction to coupling food with rodents, but most would probably watch this oddity at least once before fast-forwarding past it on the TIVO.

The other side of the coin comes in "The Man Who Walked Around the World," an oral history of Johnny Walker's whiskey delivered in an unbroken five-minute take. Actor Robert Carlyle strides down a Perthshire back road, speaking to a camera that keeps pace, telling the story of the Walker clan's canny business dealings and the rise of their brand to worldwide popularity. If a guy delivered the same text standing at a dais, you'd be bored catatonic. Carlyle's brogue and charisma and the technical virtuosity of the seamless shot make it riveting.

The program has numerous ad nauseam moments, however. Many entries are not up to the standards of earlier years. A long-form commercial for a Doritos Guitar Hero video game giveaway focuses on Alan, a teenage would-be rock god who grows up to be a grocery stock boy. The tone is a uniquely British comedy of humiliation, but as the four-minute piece drags on you wonder why you resent spending time with the hangdog loser. Budweiser builds a spot around the Beatles' "All Together Now" accompanying a ride on a Chicago elevated train, but it doesn't go anywhere interesting. And in a theater screening there's no option to tune out with the remote.

ccovert@startribune.com • 612-673-7186

  • BRITISH TELEVISION ADVERTISING AWARDS

    ★★ out of four stars

    Where: Walker Art Center Cinema.

    When: Dec. 3-Jan. 2.

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