If the ominous omicron arrival makes pre-pandemic life seem ever more distant, here's an antidote: the annual arrival of the British Arrows Awards, the celebration of the United Kingdom's best advertising that's screening at the Walker Art Center.
Featuring 48 commercials (or adverts, as the Brits say) mostly shot before mass masking and vaccinations timestamped the current era, it's "a really beautiful walk down memory lane for everyone," said Jani Guest, co-chair of the Arrows Awards board. Speaking from London, as the enduring virus crisis kept her and co-chair Clare Donald from traveling to Minneapolis, Guest added that the spots were "what was possible in production."
And seemingly in sensibility, as the ads aren't somber but raucous, even joyous, like the Arrows' "Commercial of the Year," called "Bounce," for Apple's AirPods. Selling subtly through storytelling instead of overtly by hucksterism (like most U.K. commercials), it follows a young man preparing to walk to work. After using his hand to force a smile, he inserts his AirPods and uses concrete-and-steel street architecture — from manhole covers to grates to walls, light posts, bus stops and beyond, now become rubberized — to jauntily enjoy his walk and, by extension, his life.
It's "so reminiscent of just joy and the experience of living, and in the context of everything we've all collectively lived through, it just feels like an important memory to hold on to," Guest said.
What we've all collectively lived through is similar, yet different, in Britain. On top of lockdowns in London and beyond, the messy European Union-United Kingdom divorce caused by Brexit amplified the isolation many felt. And while the U.K. hasn't retreated to its 19th-century diplomatic stance of "splendid isolation," for some Brits their country feels like a figurative as well as literal island nation.
So there's real resonance (for "remain" voters, especially) to spots like Swiss airline easyJet's "Hide and Seek," which creates the most epic travelogue version of the universal game in what looks like an unintentional antithesis to lockdowns and closed borders. More mysteriously, especially to Americans not familiar with fashion magazine the Face, is a spot called "Where Were You." Billed as "A Love Letter to Europe," it pulses with provocative, even disturbing images and disconcerting voice-overs evoking "the U.K. in its final days in the E.U."
"We're a really struggling nation at the moment," Donald said. "I think a lot of us hold our head in our hands regularly. And I can't speak for the entire population of England, but I think we really do have multiple challenges. And I think what we do as an advertising industry is obviously try and communicate a message, which is often to sell a product, but we do try in the process to lift people outside of that sense of loss and all of the general feelings I think we're having as a result of the pandemic and Brexit."
The sense of loss, like in any Western society, extends to wrenching changes bringing new challenges. And that brings out piercing public service announcements like one from Operation Black Vote, called "Fake Views." The spot features communities of color in which one member incongruously inserts racist, xenophobic, homophobic, sexist and other bigoted phrases that are later revealed to be direct quotes from British elected officials.
Another, called "Diversish," from the Valuable 500, a collection of global companies advocating for disability inclusion, features an insecure, insincere CEO being asked in a TV interview about the issue, only to wheel in the firm's one disabled employee in a cringeworthy moment that makes the worker, journalist and audience squirm. "If disability is not on your agenda, neither is diversity. Stop being diversish," reads the spot's end. A similarly themed spot from shipping firm BECO Global urges other companies to "steal our staff" of highly regarded disabled employees.
But the most impactful public service announcement is about the impact teachers have on students. From Britain's Department of Education comes "Tuesday," featuring a young teacher enlightening and encouraging each student as an individual. "Teaching. Every Lesson Shapes a Life," it reads at the end. Meant to inspire recruitment, it concurrently inspires respect for teaching as the noble calling it is.
PSAs almost always have low budgets. Some of this year's spots, however, look like big-budget blockbusters, including one with extraordinary special effects from Lacoste called "Crocodile Inside" in which a quarreling couple has their home literally torn apart in an action sequence that would be the envy of Madison Avenue, let alone Hollywood on this side of the pond.
Previously, "post [production] was very much an afterthought," said Donald. "It was, 'Well, that's where we do the edit, a little bit of coloring and so on.' Whereas more and more post is in a way leading so much of the work we do it's almost taking over from the live action."
But it's not superseding the storytelling, as evidenced in multiple spots, including a perennial, seasonably sweet Christmas ad from retailer John Lewis and a fun one from catalog retailer Argos about a dad and daughter (played by 11-year-old rock prodigy Nandi Bushell) drumming. Others are more melancholy than mirthful, including "The French Exchange" from automaker Renault, which tells a love story about two women who originally met as exchange students. No words are written or spoken, but the thoroughly modern story is timeless, all to Rahel Debebe-Dessalegne's soulful version of the Oasis song "Wonderwall."
The spot, wonderfully creative and created, "is very timely, so beautifully done and so gentle," said Donald of her favorite advert on this year's reel. For Guest it's "Bounce," the final "Best Commercial" that's bookended with the reel's first commercial, clothier Marks & Spencer's "Go Jumpers for Christmas" about sweaters (jumpers in British parlance) that, once worn, make wearers jump and dance.
The most memorable storytelling and most impactful spot is actually a beer ad. But instead of Bud Light hijinks or similarly silly spots seen in the U.S., this U.K. ad, called "Pigeons," is about groups of guys — "mates" in the U.K. — who keep and train pigeons. With the look of a short film (credits and all), it focuses on the birds and the birds of a feather who form deep bonds over their passion. Sure, some are holding a Carling beer can. But not all, and it's not all the spot's about. Instead, Carling ends the ad by inviting viewers to apply for funding "if you have a local community project you're passionate about."
The creators were obviously passionate about their art. And advertising, like all communication, can in fact be art if it elevates and makes patrons ponder something anew. And viewers may never see pigeons (and their keepers) in the same way.
Because the reel is mostly pre-pandemic, COVID's grim reality rarely rears its head. Except in an exceptional spot from the BBC called "Bringing us Closer." Scenes of the BBC's early news coverage of the first wave are accompanied by a poem, "Don't Quit," by Edgar Guest. The Brits didn't, as exemplified by one elderly gent who smiles amid the misery and says, "I don't mind. My mind is free."
As evidenced by the Arrows Awards, he's not the only Brit with that outlook.