Six riveting PSAs from the Arrows Awards

Six riveting PSAs from the Arrows Awards
Courtesy Walker Art Center

It's not merely glossy-eyed, consumerist Anglophilia that drives people to the British Arrows Awards, the annual Walker-hosted festival of prize-winning U.K. advertising. The Arrows, which opens this Friday and has already sold out many of the weekend shows, can be as engaging as any other short film festival, especially when it comes to conceptual storytelling and clever visual effects. And while it can be fun to see agencies find diverting and creative ways to sell department stores or cars, it's arguably the Public Service Announcements that leave the most lasting impressions. With roughly 90 seconds or less to bring home a message that stirs people into action, PSAs have little time to mess around, and often tend to be the most dramatically compelling and visually haunting entries every year.

Here's six of the best from the past few years.

Barnardo's: Turn Around

If you want to get a quick but effective lesson in how context can change everything in a film -- even a 60-second one -- this palindrome of a spot for youth charity Barnardo's is it. A shaky, distressed girl's voice details her experience running away from home and the trauma that follows, then, once the PSA hits the halfway mark, talks about how Barnardo's helped her turn her life back around. Literally, in visual terms -- shots of situations that show her going through her tough times are reordered in reverse and used verbatim, with her recovery narrative entirely transforming what the visuals imply. The combination of the narration's low-fidelity audio and the starkly-shot, almost neo-noir-quality cinematography only emphasizes the effect.

Central Office of Information: Breathe

The COI -- the U.K. government's communication agency, dissolved in 2011 during austerity measures -- has been responsible for decades' worth of spots that left indelible impressions on easily-freaked-out British youths (and previously complacent adults). The best ones take a simple message and make it high-concept enough to let the life-or-death facts become absolutely impossible to shrug off, like this fire safety PSA's comparison of smoke inhalation to drowning that makes for some of the most haunting underwater imagery you'll see.

Scottish Government: No Knives Better Lives

A lot of commercials have been taking their cues from viral videos since YouTube became a phenomenon, and it's no surprise that one significant inspiration is Muto, a stop-motion graffiti animation by street artist Blu that's notched nearly 11 million views. Using the wall-as-canvas format to echo the landscape of working-class streets, the story of this anti-knifecrime PSA is simple to the point of archetype, featuring a bullied kid who mortally wounds an assailant and goes to jail for it. But it takes on deeper resonance when it's splayed across the walls of a real-world neighborhood, and the moments where it literally breaks the fourth wall -- or gets incarcerated behind it -- make it more than just a gimmick.
Home Office: Street Dares

Documentary/"reality"-style vox populi shows have been a popular TV fixture for so long that it doesn't seem too out of place for this commercial to start off looking just like one. No question, British TV's had its share of "do something stupid in public for short-lived fame on the telly" programs. But this one's a perfect slow burn, one that only gets more over the top once it starts to dawn on the viewer just what the premise is -- at which point it turns from amusing to fairly upsetting, especially if you've, ah, "been there".

Transportation for London: The Bank Job


A classic bait-and-switch PSA with memorable visual metaphors and a shock ending, The Bank Job takes the old British infatuation with the heist-film structure, gives it an obvious yet clever twist on the robbers' sense of awareness, and drives it home with one last jolt of bitter irony. Everything stands out when you pay attention -- too bad these criminals forgot to realize that some less-threatening things are just as worth paying attention to as security cameras and police cars.

F.A.C.E.: Bill's Farm

Thankfully, not all PSAs are bleak. This spot for Britain's Farming and Countryside Education initiative takes an earnest message -- that it's important for kids to know agriculture's role in their lives -- and brings it home by getting actor/comedian/musician Bill Bailey (Black Books; Never Mind the Buzzcocks) to present the worst educational example possible. Bailey's absurdist explanations of the origins of broccoli or where horses come from are so weirdly convoluted that they must have used later takes; I can't imagine the kind of kid who wouldn't break the illusion by giggling uncontrollably the whole time.

2013 British Arrows Awards

Opens Friday, December 6 and runs through January 5
Tickets are available by calling 612.375.7600 or visiting online.

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