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British TV Ads Flaunt Their Arty Side
NEW YORK TIMES

March 14, 2010

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In a recent British television commercial for the Barclaycard credit card, an office worker strips down to his briefs, saunters past his co-workers and enters a storage closet, where he jumps down a chute and sets off on a wild water-slide ride across an urban landscape, sailing down the sides of buildings, whizzing past shoppers and sloshing through a public library to the sound of the 1976 Bellamy Brothers hit “Let Your Love Flow.” When his joyously soggy ride comes to an end, he says, “Can you get me a towel?”

In contrast, in this country Bank of America — showing considerably less inspiration than Barclays — is advertising its bill-payment service with a tinny jingle and statically shot images of people spilling coffee on their paper bills.

British commercials have long been known for their creativity and innovation. But from an artistic standpoint, most American advertising, perhaps except for those made for the Super Bowl or the Web, pale in comparison with their British counterparts. And unsurprisingly, British ads have long attracted a huge following in America.

Next weekend the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts will bring the latest batch of award-winning British commercials to the Bay Area for the first time. The program — featuring the 2009 winners of the British Television Advertising Awards — visits 10 United States cities annually. Recently, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis sold more than 20,000 tickets to its British ad viewings, which it has been presenting for more than two decades. The Museum of Modern Art in New York has shown these bite-size films for more than 30 years.

That the program has taken so long to reach the Bay Area is surprising considering the region’s strong advertising and independent film communities. Joel Shepard, film curator at the Yerba Buena Center, decided to import the program to fill the gap.

“It’s a bit of a mystery as to why these ads haven’t made it to San Francisco yet,” Mr. Shepard wrote in an e-mail message. “Part of the reason these screenings are so popular elsewhere is that they have been shown annually for a long time, and audiences know to expect a mix of artfulness, humor and commercial appeal.”

Many of the commercials in this year’s program are minute masterpieces. A sleek ad for the Audi RS6 features a corps of gymnasts undertaking amazing physical feats with machinelike precision. Shot in a muted palette and gorgeously lighted so that the athletes’ bodies shimmer as if they’re made of mercury, the commercial is as much a work of kinetic art as it is a sales tool.

In another ingenious ad, set in a city cafe, a young woman listens in disbelief as her friend gossips in hushed tones about a man named Don who commits a rape and a murder before trying to force himself on another unsuspecting woman on her wedding day. It’s not until the end of the commercial that we realize that the woman is recounting the plot of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni.” The close-range cinematography, sensitive execution and unexpected denouement make this advertisement for a Royal Opera House production memorable.

“In general, TV advertising has always been a high form of public art in the U.K.,” said Richard Silverstein, co-chairman and creative director of the San Francisco-based advertising firm Goodby, Silverstein & Partners. “People over there watch commercials as if they are entertainment.”

On occasion, the American advertising industry is equally capable of producing inspiring commercials. Google’s recent “Parisian Love” ad simply communicates the company’s services. The 52-second spot tells the story of a young man who travels to France, meets the woman of his dreams and settles down solely through displaying search terms on screen like “impress a French girl” and “how to assemble a crib.” The spot doesn’t feature any actors or dialogue, yet it manages to imbue something as sterile as a Web search with emotional force.

A spot for Frito-Lay Dips, conceived by Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, imagines a Mexican culinary cornucopia through the use of lush, colorful animation, including an erupting tomato-shaped volcano spewing chunks of salsa.

Yet such creative efforts are not part of this country’s standard TV advertising lexicon. Television ads in the United States tend to be more sales-driven and less focused on aesthetics. Artistry exists, but it’s more likely to be found on the Web. In fact, the Google ad played on YouTube for three months before being broadcast at the Super Bowl, and the Frito-Lay spot was initially created for the video-centric social networking Web site Vimeo.

“Companies want everything buttoned-up in a 30-second ad,” Mr. Silverstein said. “This often leaves nothing to the imagination, so you get pretty pedantic advertising.”

There may be several factors behind the British advertising industry’s more innovative approach. With that country’s film industry a fraction of the size of Hollywood, many talented British film directors spend part of their career in advertising. (Ridley Scott, Hugh Hudson and Alan Parker have all made commercials.)

Also, it could be that black humor, oblique sales messages and deliberate provocation — common in many British ads — don’t go down as well in the United States. And in such a big country, commercials with direct and friendly sales messages are more likely to appeal to broader audiences than artful creations that risk causing offense or confusion.

A commercial is principally a sales tool. But it can also be art. Perhaps if the American advertising industry were allowed to create more imaginative, aesthetically engaging and thought-provoking commercials, viewers would be less inclined to fast-forward their way through commercial breaks.

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