Actor Hugh Jackman's high-beam smile and well-defined musculature have been box-office catnip for years. However, when making a television commercial for iced tea he took a literal pounding after a director was dissatisfied with how a co-star limply slapped him for a scene. So the director first showed her how to land a slap.
He connected hard, and then asked the starlet to try again. When she flubbed it, he smacked Jackman again and the actor looked nervous. "I think she understands," he said, rubbing his jaw.
To Jackman's increasing discomfort, the director then invited others on-set to have a go too. Make up assistants, caterers, boom operators and cinematographers -- even the son of a crew member -- lined up to slap the unhappy actor.
It's the kind of stuff that can make viewers wince while they laugh. But Paul Rothwell, whose company made the ad, admits he likes it. "My assistant got drafted in, and she gives a good swing" he said with a laugh.
Visitors to the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis will see a lot of TV commercials when the 27th annual screenings of the best of British TV advertising begins a month-long run Friday night. The show includes thrill, chills, and a lot of laughs.
Rothwell is a co-founder of Gorgeous Enterprises, and a board member of the British Arrows, the organization that compiles the annual compendium of the best of British TV advertising. He'll introduce the opening show at the Walker tomorrow night.
In the Twin Cities, an advertising industry hotbed, many people come to see what themes are swirling through the British ads. Rothwell said he looks for those themes too, but this year they have been tougher to find.
"It actually feels quite broad," he said. "Humor is possibly the theme."
Celebrities also are making fun of themselves. Keiffer Sutherland reprises his Jack Bauer character from "24" with a no-holds-barred approach to making cupcakes, even using a flamethrower. Kevin Bacon appears in a number of ads, including one where he simultaneously portrays characters from six of his movies including "Footloose" and "A Few Good Men."
"There I was, deep behind enemy lines," says "A Few Good Men" Bacon.
"Was not," spits "Footloose" Bacon.
"Was too" retorts the soldier.
"Was too! You can't handle the truth!" screams "A Few Good Men" Bacon.
"That's not even his line," whispers "Apollo 13" Bacon.
"I know, right?" responds "Footloose" Bacon.
That kind of scene would resonate with the British, Rothwell said.
"In Britain of you can laugh at yourself, the audience will love you," he said. "If you take yourself seriously, they won't. I think it's a national characteristic."
Rothwell said many ads this year explore human connections and are emotional stories about family relationships such as fathers and sons.
"I always think if you can, tap into any emotion in an ad -- which you can't always do," he said. "You don't often get a chance to tap into emotion. But if you can, you are immediately going to engage."
Nowhere is this more evident than the public service announcements. There is a truly disturbing spot showing fishermen catching sharks, cutting off their fins for soup and then throwing them back in the sea while they are still alive. There is also an Irish ad showing the victims of car crashes relating the excuses used by the driver that hit them. It ends with a truck crushing a car carrying an entire family.
"Over 95 percent of crashes where someone is killed or seriously injured are due to human error," the announcer intones. "Kill the excuses. It's no accident."
"It's one of those very shocking cuts, which again, hits you between the eyes," Rothwell said.
This years British Arrows show will take audiences on an emotional rollercoaster in short increments, said Rothwell, who will conduct some research himself.
As an ad-maker, it's not often he gets to view the impact of a commercial on a group of people, so he watches audiences at screenings, particularly if it's one of his.
With more than 80 screenings scheduled through the first week in January, close to 28,000 people are expected to attend this year -- an opportunity for a lot of informal audience research.
"You sit there very quietly thinking, 'They don't know I made this,' " Rothwell said. "And [you're] looking round to see what kind of reaction you're getting. And it's quite funny."
Or at least he hopes it's funny. It could be awful, he said, "if they start laughing and you're thinking, 'Oh no, this one's meant to be serious!' "