The British Arrows — the annual festival of the best TV ads from the UK returns to the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis on Friday with new delights that include Dancing Chickens, cannibal polar explorers, and moon-walking ponies.
Between this week and Jan. 4, the Walker will screen the compilation of ads 88 times. Last year, almost 27,000 people saw the show. The Walker expects about the same number this year — although there's room for a few more.
Other U.S. cities host the show, but only for a few nights. What makes the show such a big hit in Minneapolis is a bit of a mystery. The Minnesotan passion for the British Arrows is simply unmatched, and hard to explain.
British Arrows Vice Chair Andy Gulliman describes a conversation he had at the Twin Cities airport with an immigration official who wanted to know the reason for his visit.
Gulliman, who told the official he'd come to introduce a screening of British TV ads, said their exchange went like this:
"Why are you doing that?" the man asked.
"Well, because I've been invited to do it," Guilliman replied.
"Well, why do people want to see British ads?"
"I don't know; that's why I am here."
"Well, who's paying for you to be here?"
"Why do you need to know that?"
"This conversation went on for about 10 minutes and I couldn't answer him," Guilliman said. "So I wasn't sure if I was going to even be here."
Although Gulliman was allowed into the country, he wonders if he'll see the official in the Walker audience.
One answer to the popularity mystery may be interest generated by the large creative industry in the Twin Cities. Also many families have just made the British ad festival part of their holiday routine.
British Arrows shows often have themes, and this year's is easy to spot, Gulliman said.
"The best way that I have characterized it is by thinking it's very British this year," he said.
By that he means a lot of the ads are for British products projected in a very British way. That even includes an ad featuring U.S. comedian Jason Sudeikis as a clueless American football coach hired to lead the soccer power house Tottenham Hotspur.
"Any team I coach is going to play hard for all four quarters," he says at a press conference.
"Two halves," calls out an exasperated reporter.
"OK, halves," he replies. "They are going to play hard for two halves. And we are going to play until there is a winner, or a loser."
"Or a tie," calls out the reporter.
"OK, 'til there is a winner, a loser or a tie. You can tie?"
"If you tried to end a game in a tie in the United States, heck that might be listed in Revelations as the cause for the Apocalypse," the coach says.
Gulliman said there is a lot of humor in this year's show.
"We always like to look on the brighter side," he said, quoting Monty Python. "But to balance it out there's some pretty harsh stuff on there," he continued. "And the harsh stuff — maybe some countries, maybe the States wouldn't actually broadcast that."
A horrifying public service announcement on domestic abuse demonstrates how an ordinary home can become a prison for victims. An anti-cyber-bullying spot shows a young woman being followed by a noose. Another spot literally puts web users on the spot about helping people recently released from prison. Each time they press the "Skip ad" button it sends them to an increasingly desperate plea.
"If you could hear me out even for a minute," says the man in the ad, then when it cuts off again he returns. "I'm sorry that you didn't want to listen. I hope that you can find time in the future to give an ex-offender like me a second chance."
Gulliman will introduce the first two screenings of the British Arrows Friday evening. When asked if there are lessons to be learned from this year's show, he said it boils down to clever use of ideas — and respect for the audience.
"Respect the idea, respect the way of producing that idea, but mostly respect the people that you are trying to communicate to," he said.