Annual show of British TV ads promotes community during a time of division

A person goes up to dunk a basketball with other balls bouncing around him
Megaforce’s Nothing Beats a Londoner for Nike. The annual festival of the best TV ads from the U.K. returns to the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.
Courtesy of British Arrows 2019

Over the next few weeks, tens of thousands of people will flock to the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis to watch what are now called the British Arrows. It's a program of award-winning British TV commercials now in its 33rd year at the Walker.

Friday and Saturday, the British Arrows co-chairs will introduce the program. They say it's a joyous celebration of creativity, but the political turmoil in the U.K. and across the world underlies it all.

With a British general election next week — which may, or may not, decide the Brexit question — co-chair Clare Donald said there's a lot on the line.

"Because depending on what happens next Thursday and there after will potentially dictate where companies are based, who can work where," she said.

But Donald said despite — or possibly because of — a difficult few years, British ad agencies have been producing work that hardly mentions the sponsor, or the thing it is promoting.

For example, there’s one ad that features a grade school production of Queen's classic song “Bohemian Rhapsody.” As they take their seats, parents are clearly worried at first. But the production is a triumph because of the determination of a cast of hundreds and wild Rube Goldberg stage technology. There are spaceships, robots and a guitar-wielding fourth grader riding in on a rocket.

It's an ad for the John Lewis department store, but British Arrows co-chair Jani Guest said it's really selling something else.

"With the issue around Brexit, I think there has been a focus on unification of the people," she said.

So instead of pushing a product, many of the commercials celebrate diversity, promote community or campaign against online bullying. Guest said the British are known to dislike a hard sell.

"So, the way that ideas must be communicated must be through empathy, or grabbing the viewer through an idea," she said. "And I think each brand has its own sense of spirit, and it is that sense of spirit which lives through the actual commercial. And then the tag line if it exists is what will tie and bind the whole thing together."

One ad starts with a woman putting on deodorant in a restroom, while wistfully wondering about a song celebrating the women of the world.

"An anthem we could play. Both powerful and brave," she sings, while snapping the cap back on.

Then she stops and looks straight at the camera.

"Come to think of it, I'd rather get paid."

She moves out into an adjoining office where the entire cube farm joins her in a musical celebration of equal pay for women. It's smart, funny and, Donald says, a good commercial.

"Actually, it comes down to simple economics," she said. "We want to be paid the same as men doing the same job as us so I think it is really effective."

The commercial is for Secret deodorant seen for a split second at the beginning, with its brand used briefly in the tag line. Guest said gender politics is another underlying theme in the show.

There is a commercial celebrating female sexuality, using a mixture of animated everyday objects and live action. It would probably never be broadcast in U.S., but Guest said it aired on stations in the U.K.

"I think the British public are very open and they love it when brands try and communicate in a different and unexpected way," she said. "I am really curious to see what the audience think of it."

The Walker has scheduled 95 British Arrows screenings this year, multiple times more than all the shows at other U.S. cities combined. The Minneapolis museum projects more than 30,000 people will attend this year.

Guest said British ad agencies are already working on post-election and post-Brexit commercials, and she sees the uncertainty having an unexpected effect.

"I think it's really pushing creative directors at agencies to think outside the box, and to be even more brave than they were before," she said. "So funnily enough it's somehow been a bit of an inspiration in some strange way."

Guest and Donald say they are already planning to come back to show the best of those at the 2020 British Arrows next December.

Your support matters.

You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.