U.K. + TV = LOVE + $

Prime Product Placement: Reebok smells like Thorsten Veblen in a spot from the British Television Advertising Awards at Walker Art Center.

EVERY YEAR ABOUT this time, Walker Art Center opens a window into a parallel universe. The British Television Advertising Awards--packages of 100-plus clips totaling around 90 minutes--are always amusing, intermittently enlightening, and ultimately hard to remember afterward, due to sheer quantity. I'd bet that every year audience response boils down to the following: 1) Man, those Limeys are as quaint as ever; 2) Sure wish my shop had gotten that account/effects gimmick/idea first; and 3) Karl Marx and Thorsten Veblen were right--superfluous capital is evil.

This year, however, the Brit Ads package is stronger--or "more invasive," for you Marxists--than ever, and thereby stronger conclusions can be drawn. If we take it as useful that the mass media do in fact create a kind of world for us, immaterial as it may be, then advertising presents the most lavishly furnished region of that world. In their intense desire to present mininarratives of behavior dependent on product loyalty, advertisers truly believe that we think what they do is not only vital but actually matches real experience. In short, we probably like visiting the place where they think and work so much that we'd happily move there, incongruities aside.

This would explain the program's most obnoxious entries: three elaborate minispoofs of a Late Night with David Letterman-style American talk show, which hawk Miller beer and last three minutes apiece. Flanked by other spoofs and spinoffs, "Miller Time" is the most archly postmodern campaign on view here; as a smarmy host tells bad jokes, introduces lame recurring skits, and essentially insults the audience's ability to think for itself, little subtitles remind us that all parts of this experience amount to advertising. Maybe this ad trades on a grass-is-greener sort of Brit fascination with American pop culture. But such a bout of autoerotic backslapping goes far beyond the American Pepsi campaign of a few years ago, in which a Woodstock-style gathering grew and grew (in successive installments) into an event where...the theme of the new Pepsi campaign was announced.

In other words: Be sociable, think young, be Next Generation until there's another one to push yours aside. At least the makers of British public-service announcements put their assertive skills to more substantive use. In years past, one ad was a mini-cinema-vérité documentary about how an armless woman prepared her own breakfast; it was so moving that I nearly called England myself to donate. This year, there's a juxtaposition of charming home videos of cheerful children, over which is played the agonizingly sad W.H. Auden poem from Four Weddings and a Funeral ("Stop all the clocks..."), followed by a drive-safely reminder. Similar directness guides a cinematic spot for a homeless charity featuring a beggar who's waiting outside a theater, and a "curb your dog" message in which a guy happily gets his morning paper and proceeds to leave a mound of Number Two on the sidewalk.

Another inescapable theme this year is the sheer power of new image-making tools to stop time and create impossible places. A long-running John Smith's Bitters (beer) campaign that once boasted of its simplicity now brings back the same narrator, still insisting on simple pleasures but striding across dangerous construction sites or amid solar flares where penguins take swan dives. Taking a cue from Koyaanisquatsi, a spot for an FM station pans like a "live" image past frozen vignettes to remind us that, without the station, "London's static." Get it?

Elsewhere, jittery montage rules. Discontinuous visuals sell us on milk, phone service, Nike shoes, Glenfiddich single-malt scotch, Adidas shoes, and yet another radio station. This last one aired with different music each time out, its montage (bathtubs, dancers, electrical appliances) promoting another big trend: black-and-white. Those who fear rampant visual literacy leading to incomprehensible il-literacy may find small hope in such reductionism; if color falls away, can meth-like image-speed be far behind? I doubt it. Directness typically takes a back seat to picture magic. And where all forms of mass media require trained interpretation, advertising above all provides on-the-job training, i.e.: "For the moment, a peace symbol in this context will actually refer to Mercedes-Benz cars instead of pacifist beliefs."

This may explain why the many ads either selling or referring to football (that is, soccer) remain among the giddiest experiences in the whole program: Americans, with our lack of training, will never catch up to the Brits with their inbred interpretative skills. We may have our NFL tailgates, and Packers fans might wear those cheese hats, but we can't begin to match the mass delirium of drunken fans on subways in matching 6-foot striped scarves, or fans who routinely rip up goalposts, or fans who can tolerate a sport where a "great game" might end in a 0-0 tie. Reebok in particular unites all Britain with a montage in which famed Brits reminisce about magical moments from the sport--and any time you can get Tom Jones, Wallace & Gromit, Sir Quentin Crisp, Sting, Dave Stewart, Sir Richard Attenborough, and Terence Stamp into the same affinity group, you've done something culturally significant. We may have a hard time allowing shoes to take credit for national unity, but in the ad world, it's downright patriotic to sell.

The 1997 British Television Advertising Awards screen at Walker Art Center through December 20; call 375-7622.

 
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