Over the past year, the British have been presented with alternative visions of their society.
One reflects a diverse, dynamic London amid changes, challenges and complexity. The other offers a more inward focus. Not nostalgic, per se, but personal, and simpler.
These two images could describe some of the themes of next week’s parliamentary election, whose outcome could finally break the Brexit paralysis that has convulsed the country since the 2016 referendum on European Union membership.
But it could also describe a different kind of contest: the British Arrows Awards, which recognize the best of British advertising (which in itself is among the best in the world). The reel of these really good commercials continues its ever-popular annual Walker Art Center screening through Dec. 29.
The Arrows’ “Commercial of the Year” — a Nike ad called “Nothing Beats a Londoner” — plays to and plays up the country’s cosmopolitan image. Featuring multiple stars from multiple sports, it’s an homage to home — or at least the one many “remainers” may recognize.
The Nike ad is “an incredible celebration of everything that is about London diversity in terms of all the sports, all the different cultures, the class differences. … It embraces joyous Londoners,” said Clare Donald, co-chair, along with Jani Guest, of the Arrows.
Donald, Guest and Lisa Lavender, the Arrows Awards operations director, were in Minneapolis in advance of Friday’s “Brits Night” screening. Donald described how the winner hinted at a broader British split that has played out politically in ways that might seem similar on this side of the pond.
“Londoners voted overwhelmingly to remain, to be part of Europe, to have a bigger global vision,” she said. “Consistently people in London vote overwhelmingly for things that embrace diversity, and we’re the ones that actually live with diversity, and if you go outside of London, that’s where you find people who actually don’t live with neighbors of different colors and aren’t used to the boiling pot of cultures that we have; those are the ones who are desperately suspicious and frightened of this unknown ‘other.’ ”
How this plays out in this Thursday’s vote is uncertain. What started out as a de facto Brexit referendum now seems as much one on Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s leftist economic policies (and alleged anti-Semitism), which have become as controversial as Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s feckless efforts to get a Brexit deal done.
While officially nothing beat “Nothing Beats a Londoner,” several spots are equally worthy. Many depict diverse, youthful exuberant London, especially in several soccer spots (“I think it’s just that we’re obsessed with football,” Donald said, smiling).
But it is indeed something more, like in a spot with kids representing London’s mosaic unveiling an equally diverse national team.
“We’re asking people to join in,” Guest said. “Advertising can hold its power when a viewer can relate to what they’re seeing; for young kids watching that, they see themselves in those characters.”
People are being asked to join in some serious, even searing discussions, too, like in public-service announcements from Greenpeace. One takes real kids to the “ocean of the future.” But when they visit the aquarium, it’s not bottlenose dolphins, but bottles, shopping bags and other plastic floating about. The kids’ stunned reaction should shock the conscience of the adults who can actually do something about it.
Britain’s bracing messages don’t stop there. The most memorable commercial depicts a desperate dad racing his war-wounded, dying daughter to get medical care in a chaotic Mideast city. But when he shows up, cradling his kid in his arms, the hospital has been bombed. “No hospitals. No hope,” reads the on-screen graphics from a spot from the International Committee of the Red Cross. “Every day, health workers are attacked in war zones,” it continues. “Even wars have rules.”
Except where they don’t, like in Syria, where the homicidal Assad regime, rescued by Vladimir Putin, has targeted hospitals.
The message “was one of the most powerful PSA films that has come out of the U.K. in a couple of years,” said Guest. “You would have to be a robot to not have been moved or understand the magnitude of the crisis that’s happening at the moment.”
Or, as Lavender succinctly described, “It made me cry. It’s a proper goosebump film.”
Similar emotions arise in some subtle spots, too, including a Cadbury ad in which a young girl goes into a shop to buy her beleaguered mum a candy bar for her birthday. Included in her “payment” is one small coin, two buttons and a tiny toy unicorn. The sympathetic shopkeeper sells her the gift and gives back her change: the unicorn. “There’s a glass and a half in everyone,” the tagline reads, referring to the milk chocolate, but ultimately, of course, to all of us.
A mother and son are the focus of another ad that captures the desire to slow down the world (if not politically, at least personally). Only this time it actually happens, as the harried, hurried mother (overwork is a recurring theme) is overwhelmed by a dizzying display of stressful spreadsheets and e-mails that juxtapose with the son’s equally overstimulating screen in a lonely arcade. Suddenly, the world stops until mother and son find each other — and find what matters. “Christmas Time Together,” the tagline for the BBC One spot reads.
These and other similar spots are “acknowledging that unfortunately people feel they don’t have any power” in multiple societal aspects, “So when that happens people tend to have a desire for what was once simple,” said Guest, who could have been referring to Brexit sentiment, too.
The BBC One and Cadbury ads, as well as others, offer “simple human truths and relatable human moments,” Guest said. “And then you contrast that with what is really going on in the world — like in the ICRC and Greenpeace films. All of the films are written and directed by people who are living in the U.K. and experiencing what it is to just acknowledge the truth. It’s not about being divisive; it’s just about where we are.”
Where Britain is will be more apparent after next week’s election. Regardless of the outcome, all three agreed that they, their country and their work will carry on.
“It has a spirit about it,” Lavender said. “No matter how tough things get, that’s the ‘Dunkirk spirit,’ really, is that people will rally.”
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:10 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.