You have to imagine that Ebenezer Scrooge, a vigorous advocate of not letting the holidays interfere with commercial activity, would approve of the December tradition many Minnesotans have developed: making their way to the Walker Art Center to settle in for a solid hour-plus of watching advertisements.
Walker Art Center
Of course, these aren't just any ads—and some of them are for products you can't even find in Minnesota. The British Arrows were originally known as the British Television Advertising Awards, back before the streaming revolution made "television" essentially conceptual.
The Arrows showcase video ads from across the pond chosen as each year's best by a jury of industry judges. The Walker screens the winners in accordance with its longstanding stake in advertising and design: a practice that's now continued for 33 years, and has influenced other institutions across America to follow suit.
The ads' very British-ness has been a large part of the draw, especially for Anglophiles who like to imagine the United Kingdom as a charming place full of dry wits endlessly cracking jokes about what a person will do for a Guinness, or telling heartwarming stories about hapless cats who save Christmas Day.
The reality, of course, is that the Brexit-wracked U.K. is facing a political moment just as divisive and frightening as our own. That's reflected in this year's ads, a pointed collection of clips that find corporations stepping up to say what a stubborn bloc of voters don't want to hear from their elected representatives: There is strength in diversity. Women deserve equal pay. Bullying is bad.
There are, of course, some charming clips on a lighter note. Brits rush through holiday festivities to get to snacks from Waitrose; in a meta moment, one family fast-forwards through an ad starring Elton John that's another of this year's honorees, from parent company John Lewis. That chain is also behind a commercial that sees a kids' school performance of "Bohemian Rhapsody" expand to epic scale, a similar premise to a Sainbury's spot about a high-gloss holiday pageant.
Visual delights are part of the Arrows experience, and after a few years that saw advertisers racing to deploy the most eye-popping CGI, this year's pieces use the technology more tastefully. Perhaps the most spellbinding work, in fact, is one that famously didn't use computer technology to achieve its dazzling effects: Visionary director Spike Jonze built an ingeniously morphing apartment for the acrobatic U.K. singer-songwriter FKA twigs to dance through in a commercial for Apple's HomePod.
Soccer—or are we Americans all calling it football now, too?—looms large, with spots portraying that and other sports as venues where Europe's diverse population can find common ground. That may belie some of the ugly scenes that have played out at actual matches, but it's hard not to be moved by the video announcing England's 2018 World Cup squad, with kids from across the country shouting the names of their favorite players.
There are musicals (including a sequence of singing vulvas you have to see to believe), twist endings (you may correctly guess those excited youngsters' trip to the aquarium isn't going to go the way they hope), and giggle-inducing set pieces (notably a sequence of scenarios showing how world history could have been changed for the better if everyone had mobile phones).
You may hate to love some ads, including a series from Amazon where a smarmy Alexa refuses help from celebrities like Cardi B, Rebel Wilson, and Anthony Hopkins. Wait... didn't that one, with its Jeff Bezos cameo, air during the Super Bowl? Yes, and we have London agency Lucky Generals to thank for it, so it qualifies here.
As anyone who's ever gone back to watch commercials from their own childhood years knows, nothing encapsulates an era quite like its ads. This year's Arrows suggest that the image of the cynical corporation is waning: At their best, this year's clips promote the message that what brings us together is greater than what drives us apart. Scrooge hears that message from ghosts at the Guthrie, and heeds their words. Will Jeff Bezos?
Walker Art Center