“Christmas is not only getting too commercial, it’s getting too dangerous.”
Those words from A Charlie Brown Christmas floated back to me as I watched this year’s British Arrows — the annual highlight reel of British ads, a popular seasonal attraction at the Walker Art Center. Linus and Charlie Brown were concerned about aluminum trees and sibling rivalry, but companies in 2018 had bigger concerns on their mind.
Climate change, the international refugee crisis, workplace sexism…those are just a few of the issues addressed explicitly or implicitly in this year’s 73-minute roundup. There aren’t any political ads, but the harrowing realities of Brexit-era Europe are inescapable, and these ads suggest that U.K. corporations are betting there’s still a market for hopeful, uplifting, inclusive messages.
Aside from the gripping mini-movies like a documentary about the Athlete Refugee Team (brought to you by On, a brand of running gear), what brings American audiences back to the Arrows year after year is the generous dose of across-the-pond whimsy.
We often have absolutely no idea what they’re selling (PG Tips? Are those vape flavors?), but we love watching the Brits tickle themselves with ads like a betting-service spot featuring a schmo who’s physically identical to his dazzlingly accomplished adult son; and a Jane Austen spoof about the ostensible history of Warburtons bread.
The pride of that division this year comes early in the reel: a star-studded British Airways safety video featuring the likes of Rowan Atkinson, Jim Broadbent, and the dynamic duo of Ian McKellen and Warwick “Willow” Davis.
In total effect, though, this year’s compulsively watchable ads underline the reality that U.S. viewers can see in our own ads (and many of the Arrows-honored British ads are for big American brands like Visa and Instagram): companies are putting their money on a vision of a safer, inclusive, hopeful future. Is BBC One your best ally if you’re a single parent of color? Probably not, but leading politicians aren’t even pretending to be.
Subtexts aside, the Arrows once again are a dazzling display of human creativity. It’s a genuinely funny film fest this year, with standout spots including a Marmite ad playing on the fact that the yeast spread is not for everyone; and a MoneySuperMarket spot that takes ’80s nostalgia to the absolute hilt by pairing He-Man with Skeletor in a Dirty Dancing spoof that’s far more entertaining than the actual Masters of the Universe movie. Some of the ads (like that one) have already gone viral, but no matter — they’re worth seeing again, on the big screen no less.
At least one of this year’s ads has a unique poignance for American viewers: a clip urging Brits not to carry knives. What’s America’s preferred solution to street violence? Universal gun ownership! The ads for that concept, on our side of the Atlantic, are a lot less inspiring.
Image: Elliot Dear’s “The Supporting Act” for BBC One, courtesy British Arrows.