Advertising in Britain is so great that people pay to view a reel of commercials.
In fact, for 30 years fans have jammed the Walker Art Center cinema in Minneapolis to watch the British Arrows Awards.
To mark the milestone, this year’s awards include some stellar spots from the past, including a 2009 award-winner from Hovis Breads with the tagline “As Good Today As It’s Always Been.” To demonstrate, a young lad is shown hustling home with a freshly baked loaf. Along the way the boy runs through turning points in Britain’s turbulent 20th Century history. A poster for passage on the Titanic is seen in the first shot. Soon he weaves through a suffragette rally. Next, the boy returns a crisp salute from a conscript marching off to the horrors of World War I. That scene (just like the era itself) dissolves into images of the Blitz, with Churchill’s “We shall fight on the beaches” speech broadcast amid bombed buildings. The festive ascension of Queen Elizabeth II, the mod ’60s, England’s 1966 World Cup victory, nascent Asian immigration (foreshadowing today’s globalization), a Thatcher-era miners strike and millennium fireworks over a modern, confident London complete the arc, and the ad.
If the spot were shot today, it would be impossible to leave out this year’s Brexit vote as a seminal event. And it would be impossible to wonder not about the bread, but of Britain: Will it be as good as it’s always been?
It’s too soon to tell. Post-vote political and economic upheavals have dissipated, albeit not disappeared. And in fact it’s not yet evident when — or if — Brexit will actually happen, because a court recently ruled that the procedure to leave the European Union now needs to pass Parliament.
So Brexit’s next steps will need the steady hand of Britain’s new prime minister, Theresa May, who is the second female leader to reside at No. 10 Downing Street. That fact delivers on the desired outcome of a clever ad in this year’s reel from Elle, which campaigns not for the magazine but for “#MOREWOMEN” in leadership posts. To lively music, before-and-after photos of groups of political, pop culture and business figures are shown. The men are removed in the “after” photo, depicting a persistent, pervasive gender imbalance.
Brexit’s impact on U.K. culture is unclear, too. But the pivotal national moment, and the mood that spurred it, will undoubtedly be reflected in British literature, film and music, as well as advertising.
For now it’s a “ ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ spirit,” said Charlie Crompton, chairman of the British Arrows board of directors. Crompton, speaking from London before jetting off for the Dec. 2 Walker premiere, added that “In terms of advertising they’re a little bit on the back foot, not sure exactly where it is going to go. But people still want to have memorable advertising, and that’s what we do so well here.”
That’s evident in this year’s winners, which often feature cheeky humor. But the most notable spots use stark realism to cut through the clutter. Ads for Cancer Research UK, for instance, use unflinching looks at cancer’s impact on everyday Brits, including children. “Cancer is happening right now. Research is happening right now. Donate right now,” the ad implores, and many undoubtedly do reach for their wallets (right after a handkerchief).
Tough stuff is also seen in an ad for The Prince’s Trust, which depicts troubled young people on the run from bullying, broken homes, homelessness, abuse, gang violence and other social scourges. While narrowly dodging disaster, the resourceful youth state “I’m a fast learner” and “I’m a quick thinker,” among other truths. “Thousands of young people learn the hard way. We can help them realize their potential,” the ad silently intones in inverting perceptions.
Turning around a life is the subject of the two best spots in this year’s reel. They’re from Guinness, but they redefine “beer commercial” by being almost mini-movies, with moving, first-person narratives from rugby players who used teammates to center, if not save, their lives.
“Ashwin Willemse: Born into a gang. Grew into a Springbok,” ends one about a South African athlete whose love of and from his rugby team allows him to break free from his criminal past. Another tells the story of a Welsh rugby star struggling with publicly acknowledging his sexuality. When the intrepid athlete finally, bravely, comes out of the closet into a stadium of roaring fans and supportive teammates, it projects sport as not trivial, but transformative. “Gareth Thomas: Thought he was alone. Always part of team,” the ad silently says, followed by the tagline “Guinness. Made of More.”
The same could be said of Britain’s impact on the world, especially culture. That’s likely to continue regardless of Brexit. Indeed, Britain should be as good today — and tomorrow — as it’s always been.
The Hovis ad that inspired that description “was all about the good times of England, and getting through the bad times,” Crompton concluded. “It would be rather sad to end it on the Brexit vote, wouldn’t it?”
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.