In his farsighted 2000 book Nobrow, John Seabrook argued that the defining feature of contemporary art and culture is the collapsing distinction between cultural products and the marketing campaigns meant to sell them. There aren’t many illustrations of his thesis more pure than the annual British Arrows Awards screenings at the Walker Art Center: people paying to watch TV ads at a venerable museum of fine art.
If that sounds absurd, the proof is in the pudding—or, as we’d say, “dessert.” There’s something sweet, decadent, and delicious about settling in to watch a few dozen top-notch ads, with no breaks for Raymond or Kramer or Frasier. The fact that the ads are all British means both that American audiences are unlikely to have seen them before and that everything seems just that much more charming. “This is a million times cuter because these kids are British,” said my friend during an otherwise unremarkable ad about a rolling Kool-Aid stand.
If you’re a fan of the Arrows Awards—formerly known at the British Television Advertising Awards, renamed to reflect the fact that an increasing amount of video advertising happens online rather than on television—you’ll never be disappointed, but if you’ve never gone to one of the Walker screenings, this is the year to start. It’s the best crop of ads in years, weighted towards cute and funny rather than towards scary and bleak. Whereas the last couple of years have seen ads pushing the digital-effects envelope—some more entertainingly than others—the focus this year is on human interest rather than technical wizardry.
If there’s a movie in theaters this season that makes you both laugh and cry more consistently than this collection of shorts, I’ll be very surprised. Topping the weepers this year is an ad for cancer research: when I previewed this year’s ads with a roomful of friends, the last shot of that ad had fully half of them running for Kleenex. On the other end of the spectrum is a supremely charming ad depicting several farmers as members of a boy band, dancing and singing in formation on hillsides and in barns. Twin Cities residents will appreciate an ad (above) reimagining Prince William’s wedding procession in the manner of the St. Paul wedding procession that went viral on YouTube in 2009.
What’s the ad for? Does it matter? As always, these ads—many for products and services unavailable in the U.S.—beg the question of whether video advertising actually works. More and more advertisers are exploring alternative, interactive ways to market themselves, and perhaps one day video ads like these will seem as quaint as BurmaShave signs. Fortunately, there are still enough of them to easily fill an hour and a half each year with effervescent entertainment.
Read reviews of previous years’ British Arrows Awards:
• 2008: “Maybe we’d have more stimulating theatrical fare if we just turned, say, 20th Century Fox over to Verizon and told them to go ahead and make two-hour commercials for family calling plans.” (Jay Gabler)
• 2009: “Some are visually striking (skyscrapers built of giant cards, collapsing in slow motion), some are funny (a trusty car lasts a man through a series of girlfriends, shown in rapid succession), some are shocking (now I’ve seen a prolapsed intestine), and a few use star power (one even features a voiceover by a Minnesota celebrity).” (Jay Gabler)
• 2010: “If the advertising firms of the United Kingdom have done their jobs well this year, after the Walker Art Center’s sold-out run of screenings of winners of the 2010 British Television Advertising Awards, there will be several thousand Minnesotans slightly less likely to do cocaine, drive after doing cocaine, smoke cigarettes, get into an unmarked cab, tolerate being the victims of domestic violence, drive over the speed limit, take an airline flight, have unprotected sex, carry a knife, or drink and drive—though slightly more likely to drink in general, though slightly less likely to drink to drunkenness.” (Jay Gabler)
• 2011: “There were a couple ads that I was a bit offended by but that got their points across, and there were more than a dozen that made me laugh out loud…as well as a couple that left me scratching my head in disbelief.” (Jim Brunzell III)