In British Arrows, ads may sell best that sell the least

Charlie Crompton stands by a poster for a past British Arrows show.
The Chair of the Board of Directors of the British Arrows, Charlie Crompton, stands by a poster for a past British Arrows show at the Walker Art Center.
Euan Kerr | MPR News

The annual crop of British TV ads known as the British Arrows has returned to the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, and they are more challenging than ever.

This year's show is a cavalcade of the unlikely, such as He-Man and Skeletor recreating a Dirty Dancing sequence in a dive bar ...

the uplifting, such as flying ostriches; and the mildly baffling, such as the Russian-accented meercats seeking love in all the wrong places.

Charlie Crompton, the chair of the British Arrows Board of Directors, said these ads represent a snapshot of a nation.

"We, like you, are in uncertain times at the moment," he said. "On the 29th of March we are supposed to be leaving Europe, but equally, bearing in mind that's only three months' time, we may not be leaving Europe. We might have another vote, or we may not. Theresa May, who is our prime minister, may still be in office, and she may not."

Crompton said Britons want to take their minds off things, and that's part of the impetus behind the commercials in this year's British Arrows show:

"Smart advertising that makes us laugh, makes us cry, makes us think and doesn't feel like it's selling us something at the same time."

In fact, some almost argue against a product. Such as a commercial for Marmite, the salty yeast spread that has been a staple of the British breakfast for decades, at least for the people who love it. Everyone else hates it. The ad plays on the new interest in what DNA testing may reveal.

"This should be interesting!" declares a straightlaced woman opening her mail at the breakfast table.

"Please find enclosed the results of your family's recent Marmite gene tests," reads a younger pregnant woman.

"These show whether you were born a lover or a hater," a man reads from his letter.

"I thought you said I hated it, and this says I love it," a teenage girl scolds her mother. "What kind of mother does something like that?"

"Oh, my goodness, I am so stupid," says the straightlaced woman.

"I prefer jam," says her shell-shocked husband.

"I am carrying a hater's baby," screams the pregnant woman.

Crompton said the Marmite ad is one of his favorites this year, because of its wordplay.

"There's a lovely line in that where the wife says, 'You did it here? On this table?' And you think, 'What are they talking about?' And they are just talking about eating."

The ad was also extraordinarily effective. It was the only TV commercial Marmite did this year, and Crompton said the Tesco Supermarket chain reported a 60 percent increase in Marmite sales after it aired.

Several of the ads touch on refugees and immigration. Perhaps most surprising is one by the national TV station Channel 4. Its logo is a numeral 4 made of multi-colored stripes. In this year's spots those stripes have been rearranged to create a gigantic stick figure, which in one ad is shown emerging from the English Channel to deposit new immigrants on the White Cliffs of Dover. Crompton said he believes it was a direct response to anti-immigrant feeling, which partly fueled the Brexit campaign.

"Channel 4 is going just slightly over the line and sticking it to those people by saying, 'These people we are bringing to our shores because that is what we should be doing,'" he said.

Another commercial shows masked thugs running through a hospital, stealing supplies and tearing life support systems off patients. It's by the charity Oxfam, making the case that companies which avoid paying taxes are ultimately undercutting programs used by the poor. Crompton said these commercials are designed to start conversations.

This is especially true of one ad arguing against the worldwide restrictions on depictions of menstruation on TV. Crompton said he's not sure if it would be aired on U.S. TV, but it certainly drew attention.

"That reached 800 million people," he said. "Eight hundred million people and a 72 percent positive review, and again that conversation has gone a long way."

A really long way, because the U.K. only has a population of 55 million. People around the world see the ads on the Internet.

The British Arrows remains a Twin Cities holiday tradition. Once again, the Walker's 95 screenings of the 75-minute show far outnumber screenings in any other U.S. city.

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