Disturbing British ads


At The Awl, TG Gibbon collects unsettling British television Commercials, "Just the sort of thing you might expect from a country with the rich asshole from an '80s teen movie where its Barack Obama should be". Embedded above, a life insurance ad with a delightful twist ending.

Having seen the aspirational consumption-dreams of the nation, I'm sure you'll know what to expect from its public information films.

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    1. Good Lord.  That got me to this advert for….man cream?  I may need to buy a farm in the West Country.

    1. I have to wonder if there are US commercials with a similar level of…pathos? I dunno. Anyway, whether they exist in the US, but I’m just too inured to notice?

      1. Meow, meow, meow, meow,
        meow, meow, meow, meow,
        meow, meow, meow, meow,
        meow, meow, meow, meow,
        meow, meow, meow, meow,
        meow, meow, meow, meow,
        meow, meow, meow, meow,
        meow, meow, meow, meow,
        meow, meow, meow, meow,
        meow, meow, meow, meow,
        meow, meow, meow, meow, meow.

          1. Some day, American nursing homes will be filled with demented seniors screaming, “They changed my Pine-Sol!” while perplexed young caregivers look on in horror.

  1. The point of the Whitehouse ad is that it refers back to his BBC work. As a cast member of the comedy sketch series The Fast Show, he was Ted in a regular feature called Ted and Ralph. It started light, but at one point became rather more serious, when Ted’s wife died.

    Having created a series of “comic” characters for the insurance ads, they then made a serious one, presumably as a kind of homage.

    1. A big part of what makes this work is seriously good acting by Whitehouse… rare in ads, though not nonexistent (the VW mini-Darth thing).

  2. Kinda hard for it to be a twist ending when they only show three passports from the beginning.  Maybe I’m the only one who noticed that.

    1. Either that’s your clue, or one of the kids is too young for their own passport and are on their parent’s.

    2. Well, you watched it under the heading “disturbing life insurance ad”, which one  wouldn’t get normal circumstances, so I imagine that wouldn’t register — you don’t even see how many kids there are by that point.

  3. I find all adverts automatically unsettling — they are, after all, trying to make you do something that you don’t want to do.  And I’m old enough to remember when the majority of adverts were not very good at hiding that.

    …thinking about it some more: a *cheerful* advert about life-insurance paying out in the event of your death would be considerably more creepy, wouldn’t it?

    1. The ones they show in Canada try to make you feel guilty for not spending a few dollars a month to spare your loved ones from being burdened with a ridiculously expensive funeral, you selfish old bastard.

    2. I am totally creeped out by the American lief insurance ads that imply that if you buy life insurance, you won’t die.

    3. “they are, after all, trying to make you do something that you don’t want to do”

      The basic function of an ad is to bring your awareness to something, not necessarily to get you to buy something you don’t want to.  I generally reserve that category to infomercial style ads, where they’re practically trying to hypnotise you into buying shit.

      1. Sorry Nathan, but as a designer who has worked with plenty of advertisers, I have to disagree. The point of an advertiser’s job is to sway you. Whether they’re trying to get you to buy something wholly unnecessary or simply a preferred brand, they ARE trying to make up your mind for you.

        They do so by playing on your strengths and weaknesses. Sex appeal, trust in celebrity, feeling of worth, family, and more make up the attacks against your independent thought and freedom of choice. 

        Infomercials, blatant as they are, aren’t even the worst offenders. You may not even realize it, but right now there are advertisers looking for ways to digitally add products into scenes in popular shows directly before related ads. This is an already used practice. Your favorite TV inspector may go into his office, and on a filing cabinet there’s a can of soda, cut to ad !POOF! same soda. When the scene was shot the can was never there. It was added in only after the ad time was purchased for the show! That’s how advertisers are using tech. 

        These days (thanks in part to DVRs) product placement runs rampant in prime time TV. You can easily tell product placement in a show. Anything not specifically placed won’t show a brand label. Many shows even auto sponsors that require a feature of the car being shown in the show itself as well as advertising spots during the breaks. Now that you’ve been told about it, just like the fnord – you’ll see it.

        If you want to protect your freedom to make good choices for yourself as a consumer, you need to understand that advertisers are smart and they’ve been doing this a long, long time! The first thing you need to do is acknowledge that you’re not immune to modern advertising. Think about the last time a pizza commercial sent you out for one, or when you made a purchase decision based on an ad without checking out a product’s actual specs. (You may not do these things, but most people do.) If you can’t think of a time that you did so – great! From now on though, please pay attention. It could save your wallet.

        1. You may not even realize it, but right now there are advertisers looking for ways to digitally add products into scenes in popular shows directly before related ads. This is an already used practice. Your favorite TV inspector may go into his office, and on a filing cabinet there’s a can of soda, cut to ad !POOF! same soda. When the scene was shot the can was never there. It was added in only after the ad time was purchased for the show! That’s how advertisers are using tech.

          This is nothing all that new. The early days of television actually used product placements on a regular basis, sometimes even having the characters literally pitch a product as part of the show. It fell out of favor for commercial spots later on, but the famous Reeces Pieces scene in E.T. (which caused an immediate spike in sales for the candy) brought it back in style in 1982, at least for movies.

          1. Product placement is nothing new – it’s a part of TV history. I wasn’t trying to infer anything else. That said,  it’s only in past several years that graphics have become smooth and inexpensive enough to allow television show sponsors to place products AFTER filming has occurred in order to match and reinforce ads that are placed following scenes.

            The digital placement of products is new, and my statement that advertisers’ goal is to make your mind up for you still stands.

            Traditional aggressive placement, as was seen with cigarettes in the 50s, definitely fell out of favor with the American public as 30-second spots became popular and advertisers felt that they did the job. As DVR use allowed the public to scan past those spots, aggressive placement – for example vehicles with cast members glowing about auto features – has returned to prime time. On commercial TV, product placement is used to reinforce and replace ads. 

            The history of product placement in movies has a different timeline due to control of media, and the fact that they’re commercial free. Here’s Master Tang in the movie Kung Pow (2002) singing the Taco Bell song: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5XHsDJ-9EDs
            Clearly, even a heavily stoned audience thought aggressive product placement was silly, and the concept was well-enough known to be used in that fashion. Commercial tie-ins to movies can found in everything from kid’s meals to hard liquor, and they’re almost always blatant. When a product is digitally added to a TV show, it almost always becomes part of the set – not an active part of the scene, but visibly there. The idea is to make you see it in your favorite show just before the commercial comes on.

            Here’s an article that explains what I’m talking about. Digitally added products may only appear on one run of a show, and you may never even notice they were there. I first learned about them back in 2005, and they’ve been increasing in popularity.  http://www.filmjunk.com/2011/07/07/zookeeper-product-placement-digitally-inserted-into-how-i-met-your-mother-re-runs/ 

        2. The example I use is a personal one: there was a Coca Cola ad about 25-30 years ago that would actually make me get up, go to the kitchen, and open the refrigerator door to get a Coke.  The thing is, I’ve never liked any kind of soda and have only had maybe 3 bottles of Coke in my life.  There has NEVER been a bottle of Coke in my refrigerator, ever.  And yet that ad was so persuasive that I would get up to look for one.

          That’s the power of advertising.

          1. Yep. Here’s another way to tell how powerful ads are:
            “I wanna pop. I wanna _____.””_____ adds life.””_____The uncola.””_____The choice of a new generation.”Do you know what those four sodas are? Most people do.

          2. Do you know what those four sodas are?

            No, I haven’t got the faintest idea what any of them are. But then I never use the word ‘soda’.

            And why can we still not reply to comments after they reach a certain level of indentation?

      2. If the point of an advert was to “bring your awareness to something”, it would be pretty poor value for money for the advertiser.  The advertiser’s *sole goal* is to make you buy the product.

  4. My personal favorites are the New Zealand Accident Compensation Corporation’s PSAs:

    1. I completely forgot about those. Maybe that’s why as a kiwi,  I didn’t really find any of these ads particularly weird. 

  5. I love and hate this advert. I love it, because it very neatly encapsulates an affective story in its forty seconds; it’s a work of art. I hate it because it’s selling me insurance, ’nuff said.

  6. As a Brit, I don’t find any of those particularly disturbing (well, maybe the Aviva one a little).  US ads for prescription drugs, now there’s disturbing – especially when they list all the potential side-effects at the end. Ugh.

  7. I assumed this was one of Cory’s usual astute opinion pieces on British culture, until I noticed the author apparently holding up US culture as a superior model.

    That’s when I realised it wasn’t written by someone who knows Britain personally, and the critique starts feeling a little stilted.

    1. Rob is from the UK, as evidenced by that poncey accent, and TC Gibbons apparently lived in the UK for five years, so…

  8. I wonder if the reason the Timothy Spall ads seem unsettling to Americans is just due to the movie cliche of villians with gravelly London accents.  I don’t think his voice is particularly sinister – To me it far more readily evokes  “trustworthy down-to-earth everyman” than “malignant psychopath.”  But then, I know quite a few (non-psychopathic) people who sound like that.

  9. i think i have seen that actor before in some comedy sketch about the “ile of man..” on a DVD, was real funny.

  10. By way of contrast, there’s a life insurance ad running right now in the USA in which a woman (soft, sad music in background) looks straight at the camera and explains how wise her husband was to buy [some company’s] life insurance.  She finishes by saying, “If he were here right now, I would say ‘thank you ‘ to him.”  At which point her husband walks thru the room and says, sarcastically,  “You’re welcome.”    I think both of these ads are nicely done. 

  11. “Just the sort of thing you might expect from a country with the rich asshole from an ’80s teen movie where its Barack Obama should be”
    Can someone explain just what he means by this statement? Because I haven’t a clue, I just cannot parse his meaning.

  12. Meh, it’s just Paul Whitehouse playing a cheeky dead dad. Not particularly creepy.

    Really don’t get the quote about Barack Obama and how you would expect it from England.

    Struggling to fill your quota ai Rob?

  13. The “rich asshole” is David Cameron, who along with the rest of his Eton-educated millionaire government is simultaneously slashing taxes for the rich and selling access to government policy to the highest bidder (and all the while crying “we’re all in it together!”). But that’s by the by, I thought it was a funny way of juxtaposing the two leaders.

  14. Oddly they’re both millionaires and both lead governments  “slashing taxes for the rich and selling access to government policy to the highest bidder “.

  15. I think american insurance ads are far worse, especially the recent allstate commercials where the focus of the ad is the personification of ‘mayhem’. The implication is that if you don’t get allstate, your car will be wrecked and ruined in every way possible. It’s pretty creepy.

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