Stop Being So English

Do not underestimate the power: Sony PlayStation's goggle-eyed denizens put the public in control

The English are prigs. They're prudish, provincial, and over-proper. They favor cheap reproduction period furniture and chintzy floral décor; they eat overcooked vegetables; they can't pronounce imported brand names; and they burn rather than tan. So say the cheeky furniture, bank, beer, and car ads featured in this year's installment of the British Television Advertising Awards, the Walker Art Center's annual ode to cool (or, in this case, uncool) Britannia. As this year's assemblage of ads shows, it's both clients and creatives who mean to leaven stiff British traditions with European Union-inspired international style.

Take IKEA. Following its 1997 "Chuck Out Your Chintz" campaign, the Swedish superstore and global furniture giant currently campaigns against English taste with its slogan, "STOP Being So English." While the spots also spoof pop-psych attitude-adjustment strategies, they show tightly wrapped Brits getting loose with the acquisition of funky prefab furnishings. Pale-Brit jokes can apparently pass these days, although it should be noted that nearly 200 defensive viewers filed formal complaints over the commercials. (Indeed, can you imagine any such ads for IKEA stores in Israel, China, or Russia? "STOP Being So Jewish"? "STOP Being So Red"?) But as one woman even gets a black girlfriend to match her new look, it's up for grabs whether the series subverts white privilege or succors superficial Anglo "soul." And while a luxury-car ad makes sport of country-club exclusivity, it also trades on the knowledge that Audi sticker prices make Audi ownership itself a prized membership.

Other campaigns send up English identity or mix it up entirely. Volkswagen advertises its new affordability by challenging first impressions--showing "ordinary"-looking drivers as cross-dressing businessmen, lusty homemakers, seasick fishermen, and so on. Guinness stops being Irish by showing itself at the center of Italian pub ritual; Nike features the Brazilian soccer team playing beachball to the retro theme from Austin Powers; and Coca-Cola presents footy (a.k.a. soccer) as an international (not just British) obsession.

In this global spirit, the series' "Vision 5" sidebar (screening December 10 only) devotes two dozen public service announcements to imagining a better Britain. The one-minute clips promote "respect for difference," environmental awareness, age-consciousness, community-mindedness, and international esprit de corps. Here not-for-profit Great Britain looks (and sounds) more varied than the corporate version: These clips feature Brits of all hues, ages, and persuasions, including two pinky-proper tea-drinking Anglo-African twins and a hookah-smoking grandmum.

But most of the newfangled Anglo adverts perform national-image overhauls simply by avoiding the "kitchen-sink" realism that has historically distinguished BBC-based British cinema in favor of virtual realism and Amerindie amalgams. So, following Forrest Gump, mobile-phone and television ads go on magical history tours, splicing customers into famous global photo ops with national heroes; camcorder campaigns send beatific video-tourists on road trips in the offbeat manner of Jim Jarmusch and David Lynch; and Levi's hocks its retro wear with the help of French techno and an iconic yellow-sock puppet (now a U.K. cult-figger and product in himself).

Indeed, the very goods promoted in cybernetic spots suggest that admen have not only thrown out the realism but the whole kitchen sink. There are, quite simply, no plugs for cleaning products or household appliances (in fact, there were no such entries in the competition to begin with). If soap used to signify "civilization" by greasing the wheels of the Victorian advertindustry with domestic imagery, now telephones, camcorders, video games, and cable channels do so by virtual means. Good-bye happy housewives--hello techno-weenies. And while the lone toilet article on the winning roster recalls the old imperial formula ("tribal" cavewomen go for a pasty Brit in their midst), the new hardware invites consumers to "conquer worlds" (as Sony PlayStation puts it) without even leaving home. (This means no ads for airlines, either.)

But cyberculture does acknowledge an apprehensive, even antagonistic audience. So commercials for Egg Financial Services call playful, preemptive attention to the authority of advertisers by having an inquisitor (modeled after Brazil's ominous "Minister of Information") strap the company's celebrity spokespeople to lie-detector machines and force them to confess that they are paid for these very ads. (Only in a country without capital punishment could an advertiser offer the following joke from a black athlete: "I feel like I'm in an electric chair.") Likewise, Orange Telecommunications employs partially colorized black-and-white (à la Pleasantville), a comforting tone, and director Ridley Scott to reassure viewers that the company does not oppose the postal service, outdoor recreation, human reproduction, or movie theaters. (Notice how such corporations adopt organic names: Apple, Egg, Orange.)

From the public-service p.o.v., some "Vision 5" clips present dystopic virtual futures, wherein technology supplants nature, romance, and poetry. One entry exhibits lovers' imaginations colonized by cinema and computers; another shows a sickly, unshaven spectator misusing a magical pod until reprimanded by his nature-loving younger self. The "Vision 5" Grand Prix winner parodies an imagined interactive commercial that would enable viewers to select the genetic traits of a cyborg baby.

But documentary realism can prove no less manipulative than any genre, as best illustrated here by health and safety education campaigns. The "Don't Drink and Drive" series, fashioned after reality-based TV and based on coroners' reports, shows grisly accident scenes with the warning "Don't Drink and DIE." Antismoking ads feature tearful testimonials by smokers dying--and now dead--of cancer. And seat-belt ads reenact deadly wrecks in gruesome visual and aural detail, while charity spots render Christmas as domestic horror (in the realistic fashion of Nil by Mouth and The War Zone). Unlike U.S. Army recruitment campaigns that make war a romance of heroism and fulfillment ("Be All That You Can Be..."), British Army "public service announcements" picture war as bloody hell. But to the same end--military recruitment--they appeal to progressive ideals by positing black and female soldiers as foes of rape and racism.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the ads for "old-fashioned" newspapers employ realistic black-and-white to celebrate face-to-face community over electronic exchange. The Independent opposes its free-thinking paper--and the physical pleasure of reading--to espouse "Just Say No" conservative litanies and disembodied communication ("Don't touch," "Don't Drink," "Don't Think," "Don't Masturbate," "Don't Read"). The Sun shows its tabloid self passed from hand to hand, generation to generation, occupation to occupation, and from loo to cat-litter pan, applauding the solidarity of "the British People" with Tinky-Winky, football, Britpop, and a Darwinian chorus ("only the strong survive"). Alternately, BT (British Telecom) presents quotidian phone chat as community adhesive, suggesting that "I fell," "I lost weight," or "I got dumped" is the most momentous news of the day in the real world.

Ultimately, the new Brit program (now in its 24th year) evinces not so much confident self-deprecation as high anxiety at Britain's--and even TV's--status in cyberspace. In this year's competition, Sony took the top prize (affectionately known as "The Big One") for its Playstation spot featuring goggle-eyed humans and an ominous slogan-threat: "Do not underestimate the power of PlayStation." PlayStation, like the remote controls and VCRs before it, grants players the power to avoid adverts. Talk about risky business. Might this brave new digital world render TV ads--and the people who make them--redundant?


The 1999 British Television Advertising Awards screens December 3-22 at Walker Art Center; (612) 375-7622.

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