At the Walker, advertising as canvas

  • Article by: JOHN RASH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 6, 2013 - 6:01 PM

Annual screening of British Arrows Awards will make you want to stay tuned during the commercial break.

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A generation-spanning split-screen couple views art in a TV commercial for British retailer John Lewis. It is just one of many artistic Arrows Awards spots screening at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis through Jan. 6.

Photo: Photo courtesy the Walker Art Center,

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Oscars, Tonys and even Emmys may have more prestige. But there is no more apt appellation than the Arrows Awards, which recognize the best of British TV advertising. Like an arrow, these spots are piercing and right on target.

This year’s reel began its annual run at the Walker Art Center on Friday (the Star Tribune is a media partner). It reveals cultural clues about the mood in modern-day, austerity-era England. As always, there is humor. But compared with previous versions, the themes this year seem more drama-driven.

Some spots last longer than a minute, which seems luxurious in today’s 140-character Twitter era. Notably, many spots are about this era’s transformative technologies. Cellphones, for instance, are so ubiquitous it appears that they’re considered necessities even in these tough times.

Yet there is a wariness, if not weariness, about tech, too. “Turn it off,” implores cell service Orange. And info overload is the theme as a young grad on the first day of his first big job is so overwhelmed that he seeks comfort in the conformity of McDonald’s.

McDonald’s isn’t the only iconic brand picking up its creativity along with a British accent. Volkswagen moves more than wheels with a surprisingly emotional spot about a couple raising a daughter until she motors away to university. “Small but tough,” the tagline says. But some may not feel so tough when the sweet spot tests the stiff upper lips Britain is famous for.

Parent-child bonds get great play in other spots, too, suggesting timeless values in this transient tech era. In a commercial for British bread company Hovis, a boy asks if he can help his dad out. A skeptical yes is followed by scenes of earnest, exhausting, gritty farm labor. Over a silent bowl of stew, Mom asks Dad how it went. “He did great,” goes the three-word answer. But the picture of the boy’s reaction is worth a thousand words about the power of parental praise.

Parental words of a different type — hurtful and cruel — are part of a searing spot about child abuse. And other public service campaigns really do a service by not sparing viewers. In fact, it dares them to not care with graphic portrayals of real-life issues.

For instance, in one spot a homeless woman, moments from sexual assault, pounds on a shelter’s doors. Two possible outcomes are shown: If enough sign a petition, the shelter opens and she escapes. If not, the assault begins. It’s terrifying and effective. In another spot, the image of sharks inverts from villain to victim as documentary-style footage portrays the barbaric realities of making shark fin soup.

Music is often used to great effect, such as in a spot for retailer John Lewis. To a soulful version of INXS’ “Never Tear Us Apart,” a split-screen shows a 1920s woman and a 2013 man fall in and out and back in love. “What’s important doesn’t change,” the tagline says of the store. But it could have been referencing storytelling, which seems to be a British gift spanning Shakespeare to Zadie Smith, the Beatles to the BBC.

This gift is appreciated back in Britain, said Paul Rothwell, an Arrows Awards board member who introduced Friday’s premiere. Like a gracious guest, Rothwell said in an interview that the best advertising anywhere is still created in America. But, he added, those exceptional ads “are just the cream of the top. … In the U.K. there is a higher overall standard. … I’m not sure about it being an art form, but there is an appreciation of it. It’s always been quite nicely received in an area in which you can imagine it might not be.”

An example of this higher standard is my choice for best spot. It’s for the Guardian, and it shows how today’s multimedia newspapers tell a story — in this case, “The Three Little Pigs.”

The spot chosen best by the Arrows, for the Paralympic Games, is terrific, too. It’s called “Meet the Superhumans,” and the intense, inspiring athletes live up to the label.

Commercial recall is often a good gauge that a message connected. Sometimes even a tagline resonates. “Saving us from the bland, the beige, and the common ‘can’t be bothered.’ They are a welcome splash of red in a wary world of gray. Flying in the face of ordinary.” It’s for Virgin Atlantic Airlines, but it could be about the Arrows, which show that advertising at its best can indeed be an art form.

 

John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:20 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.

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