Brit-wit gone commercial

Max Sparber

Some of us could watch television forever if it weren’t for television shows constantly interrupting all those marvelous commercials. There it is, Nike’s staggeringly comic “Tag” commercial, in which it seems the whole of New York has spontaneously chosen to play a child’s game, tagging one grim-faced target and then fleeing the streets en masse and hiding in long, crouched lines behind garbage cans whenever he appears. But then the commercial ends, and we are plunged once again into the insipid world of this season’s Real World, where the only real drama is to wonder who will get the evil eye that forever lurks below Coral’s impossibly elongated forehead.

Well, now is your chance to spend 90 minutes watching nothing but commercials, without the attendant unpleasantness of having to sit through yet another re-run of Designing Women. And, better still, these commercials are all from Britain, where they approach advertising with a grand sort of anarchic glee. Theirs is a world in which an elderly matron’s housecat can sneak out at night to take his rightful place on the dance floor of a Latin nightclub, while, in another commercial, a man pushes his way through the pet’s entrance of a back door, only to slip into unconsciousness. The next morning, he wakes with his pants pulled around his ankles, some neighbor having chosen to park his bike in the crack of the man’s ass. The logic is incomprehensible, the subject of the commercial obscure (even on repeated viewings, I am not certain what is being sold), but the image is priceless.

This year’s collection-the 24th in an annual series of British Television Advertising Awards-also has a love for recurring characters, such as a red-faced, oversized fellow who incessantly frets and whines about the cellular phone he wants for Christmas. In over a half-dozen commercials, this character throws tantrums and verbally assaults everybody from Santa Claus to his own wife, demanding a specific phone and detailing its services. Another series of commercials, for Woodpecker Cider, has a chummy man in a huge woodpecker costume laconically participate in a variety of understated social scenes, such as chatting with his friends about his gardening hobby and coming to a young lady’s defense when she is accosted in a bar. “Hey, mate,” the woodpecker says, pressing one wing between the woman and her suitor, “she said no, all right?”

These commercials range from offbeat to
simply goofy, and occasionally – and jarringly – to serious. Because when the British want to make a point, they make it forcefully, such as in an anti-drunk driving commercial, in which a car plows through a row of hedges and right over an unwary child. As the child’s father clutches the boy’s shattered body, the driver pulls himself from the wreck, surveying the scene with horror. “Can you live with the shame?” asks a title card, and, having come after a dozen or so purely humorous commercials, the question is more than a little shocking. I couldn’t live with the shame, no; I can barely live with the commercial.

But this points to the quality that makes these commercials worth watching beyond their purely economic function-they are examples of high-impact communication, miniature masterpieces of abbreviated
storytelling, built to communicate a message as briefly and forcefully as possible. This they do, even when that message couldn’t be weirder, such as a David Lynch-directed commercial in which a man’s own head wanders away from him during a long walk down an endless hallway, until eventually he is
confronted by a man in a suit, a duck in a suit, a man in a full body cast (presumably wearing a suit beneath) and a severed arm relaxing together on an oversized divan. I don’t know what is being sold here, but whatever it is, I’m buying.

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Max Sparber welcomes comments at [email protected]