The annual British Arrows Awards screening begins its holiday-season run Friday at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. In a nod to the multiple ways video is watched nowadays, the 73-minute reel isn't described as just the best of British TV commercials, but the best of Britain's "moving-image advertising."
However unintentionally, the categorization works in another way: The emotive spots are in their own sense moving images.
In fact, deeply moving, in the case of one of the "Gold" winners for the charity Macmillan Cancer Support. It depicts real people contending with cancer — patients, providers, families and friends — in a two-minute, unflinching look at people in their most vulnerable moments.
Viewers may feel vulnerable, too.
"Sometimes it really, really can hit you and you can't watch it without welling up; oddly, it got me this morning," said Arrows co-chair Clare Donald, who along with co-chair Jani Guest and managing director Lisa Lavender spoke from London before departing for Minneapolis for Friday night's opening event.
"That spot really captures the human experience," said Guest, who added that "in every shot [there's an] incredible touching moment between two human beings, where there's a shared moment of 'we are one, we're in this together,' and I think that's what's so moving about it, is you feel like you're there with both of them having that shared moment of intimacy."
Intimacy is integral to several other impactful ads, including for prosaic brands like Starbucks and McDonald's. Both explore the inner lives of young people coming of age not through verbosity but via vignettes. Pulling this off is difficult in any medium, but particularly impressive in relatively short spots.
The Starbucks ad portrays a trans teen who is repeatedly referred to by their birth name instead of their new, chosen name. Validation finally comes when a Starbucks barista asks, "And what's your name?" and then agreeably inks it on a cup. "Every name's a story," the tagline ends.
And so too is every Arrows spot, with this tale about a mass-market brand being brave in its marketing.
"That ad could easily have been done wrong and it would have just felt like virtue signaling," said Lavender. Instead, it feels authentic. "I think the British ad industry does emotion incredibly well," said Guest, a longtime Londoner who's originally from the U.S. In "American advertising space the consumer product is front and center; [the Starbucks ad] was a genius idea, because it showed a character and how they want to relate to themselves, and how they wanted people to relate to them, through the use of a product."
Similarly, the McDonald's spot, titled "Imaginary Iggy," isn't about French fries, but about a small fry and her imaginary, furry friend, whom she "hides" once she reaches teen peer-pressure years, only to reclaim Iggy when she starts observing other kids' imaginations at Christmastime. The only product shot is subtle — for a packet of "Reindeer Food" (carrot sticks) that McDonald's distributed for free on Christmas Eve.
Set to the tune of Cyndi Lauper's "Time after Time," the spot explores an inner life as the Starbucks ad does, and resonates particularly well during the holiday season — for British consumers and Walker viewers alike.
Intimacy of another sort is explored in ads for Durex Natural Lube and in two spots for Bodyform. Their frank reflection on sexual and menstrual matters belies British stereotypes, and in fact are so bold they might not make it onto prime-time television on this side of the pond.
"It really challenges the viewers' perception and puts that experience in a completely different light," said Guest. "The work is incredible because it changed the genre of that advertising. Everyone had in their mind, 'OK, this is how you advertise for that product.' And they completely flipped it, and they asked us to think about it in a different way."
So too did the International Paralympic Committee in a campaign called "#WeThe15." The number refers to the percentage of people worldwide thought to have some kind of disability, and the ad, which starts as an all-too-typical hagiography voiced over by phrases like "You're such an inspiration," soon dispels the notion that they are heroic; instead, people in this cohort claim, they're normal, with all the same humanity, flaws and all, as the other 85.
Conversely — or perhaps complimentarily, depending on one's interpretation — is another excellent ad from Britain's Channel 4, promoting its broadcast of the Paralympics. In it, participants are depicted overcoming challenges to compete in their sport. It ends with the tagline: "To be a Paralympian, there's got to be something wrong with you," followed by the words: "Super. Human" — reflecting the noble, but normal, "WeThe15" ethos.
Overall, the inherent humanity found in sport is often fodder for Arrows Awards winners, and this year is no different. Beyond the Paralympics ads, there is a series from Nike, including a compelling commercial about pregnant women working out intentionally or just as part of everyday life. ("Can you be an athlete? If you aren't, no one is" the ad says.) Another celebrates the post-pandemic return of competition with the tagline "You Can't Stop Sport."
Especially soccer. Or football, as Brits say in two excellent spots. One, from the charity Football Beyond Borders, is based on a poem by a girl named Abi titled "Being Black and 6Teen." Another, from video game maker EA Sports, highlights the real-life Midnight Ramadan League, which competes late at night after Iftar, the after-hours meal that breaks the daily fast. As with so many ad campaigns, it reflects the cultural kaleidoscope redefining the global crossroads that is today's London.
This mosaic is adopting, and adapting, British tropes, including fashion ones, as depicted in an ad the Arrows deemed "Commercial of the Year." It's from Burberry, which at one time implied a trenchcoat, with an iconic tartan-check liner, worn by a solid, if not stolid, Brit. But like so much of U.K. society, this image is also moving — toward a more multicultural reality. So too is Burberry, which still sports its tartan, but on much more fashion-forward clothes.
The finery, and four fine-looking people wearing it, are shown in the spot leaving a Soho restaurant into blobs of (computer-generated) hail and ice. No worries, as the four choreographed mates effortlessly dodge it to the tune of "Singing in the Rain" — not the version crooned in the movie, but by Dreya Mac, at times described as a "soulful rapper." Far from its original image, Burberry marketing, said Donald, is "so unique and so different and moves away from any of the typical conventions you would expect within this category."
Of course, in real life and on the reel itself there still are conventional reflections of London, including one seen in a stop-motion animation spot from Sipsmith Gin. In it, a tall, white, aristocratic, ascot-wearing Brit touting the ultimate British spirit emphasizes the brand's sponsorship of the ultimate British sporting event: Wimbledon.
Except, in a fitting coda to how these clever commercials continually invert notions, the prototypical Brit is not actually a man, but a swan.