The economy through the lens of British TV adsby Euan Kerr, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — Few people would set out to view a mismatched set of video clips of a guy driving a car, but in the hands of a skilled sound editor it becomes a finalist in the British Television Advertising Awards.
And once again, in what's become a uniquely Twin Cities holiday tradition those finalists are on show at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.
Twenty-thousand people went to the Walker last year to see the ads. This year's show, which opens Friday night, has a similar range of wackiness from water sliding office workers to dogs singing soul music. However, this year it also reflects the troubled British economy.
Peter Bigg runs the British Television Advertising Awards and he'll introduce the program Friday night at the Walker. He said it's been a tough year in Britain, as is plain to see when you switch on the telly.
"The problem has been because so many brands haven't advertised, other than government or program promotions, the commercial breaks have been empty," he said.
The British Government is now the biggest advertiser on TV in the U.K. It buys time to draw attention to public safety campaigns, but don't assume that means they are boring.
"This is an awareness test," intones a solemn voice in one ad.
Two basketball teams appear lined up on screen.
"How many passes does the team in white make?" asks the announcer. Then someone shouts "Go!"
The players jump into action, passing a number of balls back and forth really quickly. It's hard to keep track. Then suddenly the action stops.
"The answer is 13," says the announcer. "But did you see the moonwalking bear?"
The video rolls back and plays again, and yes, very clearly there is someone in a bear suit dancing through the players.
So what is it? It's an ad for cycle safety.
"A big piece of government advertising this year is the number of cyclists who are knocked over just because they are not seen," Bigg said.
Peter Bigg said it was only after he put together the award reel this year that he realized just how the government presence has changed the tenor of the program. Graphic public service announcements on the dangers of binge-drinking and carrying knives make very tough watching.
"It quite a grown-up, gritty show," he said.
Another major advertiser, believe it or not, is the commercial free BBC. One ad mixes not only pop hits but video of radio disc jockeys goofing off around in the studio.
For Peter Bigg, there is a flipside for the tough economic times, at least looking at things from a TV advertising point of view. At the moment he said British TV audiences are huge.
"Because people aren't going out as much," he said. "People are watching more television than they ever did."
Bigg said two weeks ago a reality show called the X-Factor pulled in 45 percent of the viewing audience. He described that as 'heaven' for advertisers, and he said stations are already preparing to charge hundreds of thousands for spots closer to Christmas.
Bigg said there is some very fine work in the show he's brought to the Walker.
He points to a couple of his favorites: one ad marks the 25th anniversary of the Virgin Atlantic airline, which he said neatly captures everything about the company.
He also likes a particular car commercial with a singing dog. Sometimes he's a full throated soul singer. At others he's cowering and barely whispering.
"The dog only feels confident when it's in the Volkswagen," Bigg said .
Bigg is feeling confident too. He quotes a recent survey which shows how central TV commercials are to British life.
"It is the second most talked about thing in the U.K. The first being family, the second being what you saw on TV and the third is the weather."
Given the tradition that the weather has always been the foremost topic of conversation in Britain, that's a significant change.
"It would never happen here would it?" laughs Bigg.
Peter Bigg said the Walker has already sold 7,000 tickets for this years screenings. He jokes that's enough to cover his plane ticket.
This is the 21st year in a row the Walker has shown the British ads. Only the Movies and Music program at the Walker has run longer.
- All Things Considered, 12/04/2009, 5:53 p.m.