Walker’s British TV awards: Why do people pay to watch ads?

Beattie McGuinness Bungay’s commercial for Carling.

The holidays are upon us, which means it’s time for arts organizations to roast up the annual chestnuts. Over the years, I’ve seen most of the standards: “Nutcracker,” “Christmas Carol,” “Messiah,” “Black Nativity,” “Servant’s Christmas,” et al.

But full disclosure: I’ve never seen the Walker Art Center’s annual screening of the British Television Advertising Awards.

“You must be the only Minnesotan who hasn’t,” said Peter Bigg, administrator for the trade organization that produces Britain’s awards event every spring. He’s in the Twin Cities this week to kick off the Walker’s month-long screenings — something he’s done every year for the past 20 years.

The series, which begins tonight, includes 66 screenings through Dec. 30, making it the year’s biggest single event for the Walker’s film department. Attendance is expected to top 20,000, and as of Thursday, half of the available tickets have been sold, Bigg reports.

You can reserve tickets by going here.

I asked Bigg why people would pay $10 ($8 for Walker members) to watch about 90 minutes of TV commercials. This was asked after acknowledging that these are enormously creative sketches — I’d seen a DVD version provided by the Walker — that are variously hilarious (quite a few), clever (always), poignant (especially some public service spots) and stunningly visual.

Super Bowl and advertising
But they are commercials, after all. Why pay to see them?

Bigg came back with an ironic observation: “It’s interesting what an economist might think in these times — 20,000 people paying money to watch commercials in a country where nobody is spending any money.”

Bigg also noted that many Americans watch the Super Bowl in order to catch the debut of a new crop of commercials. But, I countered, that’s because the football game is seldom very interesting. With that, we let the motivational issue drop. And we avoided a breathy discussion of pop art and Andy Warhol, thank you very much.

The popularity of the Walker’s annual screening is something that Bigg still considers “bizarre,” even after two decades. Back in 1988, he said, he agreed to come to Minneapolis to introduce the compilation of advertising winners because the event coincided nicely with the chance to visit relatives living in the city. They’ve since moved to South Carolina — climate reasons, Bigg explained — but he still comes back every year.

And he comes with a certain amount of Anglo-tempered eagerness, obviously. “We started off with a couple of hundred people at one screening and the growth (in attendance) has been phenomenal, especially in recent years,” Bigg said.

Over the years, the overall tone of the commercials has varied in ways that roughly reflect trends in British society, Bigg said. “During hard times, it’s reflected in the humor,” he said. “In my opinion, the commercials of 2007 and today are some of the funniest we’ve had probably in a decade.”

The current batch, most of them, will be new to local viewers. But they are products of international ad agencies, including Fallon and BBDO, which have offices in the Twin Cities. Fallon, in fact, grabbed a huge number of awards this year — including the grand prize, called the “Thinkbox” award, for a commercial for Cadbury candy that features a gorilla playing a trap set of drums.

I’m not being a spoiler by reporting this, though the Walker film is organized into categories that go from “Diploma” to “Best Commercial of the Year.” It’s easy to find the list of winners, along with videos, by doing an Internet search. These are ads, after all.

Cadbury gorilla
I was intrigued, however, by the categorizations of lesser to greatest. The Cadbury gorilla spot was certainly entertaining, but it wasn’t obvious to me that it was the best of the lot. In fact, I got a bigger kick out of two other Fallon commercials — one involving the messy construction of a giant cake and another showing an army of musicians playing a single note. Both got “Gold” awards, so maybe I have some taste in evaluating advertising.

A panel of ad-industry judges ranks the commercials, Bigg said. “When you get the pros together, to get the top 10 is quite easy,” he said. “After that, there is quite a gap in their marking.”

For me, the most entertaining commercial was a short film — as opposed to brief spot — by Martin Scorsese that begins with a hook about the director discovering a long-lost script by Alfred Hitchcock. It runs through a long scene in a crowded theater, complete with Hitchcockian camera angles and an attempted murder by strangulation a la “Dial M for Murder” and ends with an embrace over champagne (the product) that vaguely reminded me of the concluding scene in “North by Northwest.”

Nice, funny tribute, I thought:  But hardly a bankable commercial. The cost of air-time rental would be enormous.

As to the grand prize winner, I watched it with my son, who noted my puzzlement about its ranking as the top spot. I speculated: Was it a sly tribute to the famous “Nairobi Trio” gorilla sketch by Ernie Kovacs?

That reference went by him like a generational breeze. “I know:  they found a real gorilla with a music degree,” he said with a smirk.

“Oh, gimmie a break,” I replied.

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