A look at artful British TV commercials 

If you think TV commercials in the U.S. are clever — and there’s a good chance that you don’t — check out what the British are doing.

You’ll have that opportunity when the first Bay Area showing of the annual British Television Advertising Awards, a 90-minute whammy that displays the best of more than 1,000 competition entries, makes its way to the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Screening Room Saturday and Sunday.

Joel Shepard, longtime film-video curator at YBCA, explains that the BTAAs were originally brought to this country by New York’s Museum of Modern Art, which wanted to recognize them as an art form. The program annually tours to 10 U.S. venues.

In Minneapolis, where the commercials have been shown for more than 20 consecutive years, they’ve become a major cultural event.

“The majority of the commercials are funny,” Shepard says, “and some are socially hard-edged. They show that the British take advertising far more seriously as an art form and space for creativity.

“If you watch the Super Bowl, the commercials are supposed to be the best we can do. But that stuff doesn’t even compare to the British ads. There’s quite a few ads in this showing that are better than a lot of the schlock coming out of Hollywood.”

That is not to suggest that British commercials do not indulge in violence, blood, gore and sex.

But the way they get your attention is far different than in our dumbed-down fare. Often you have no idea what the ad is about until the last five or 10 seconds; the majority of the footage bears scant relation to the product or message.

Segues are fascinating, associations tangential. They’re fodder for a new game: Stop the commercial midway, and guess what it’s about.

One reason for the Brits’ greater level of sophistication is that the U.K.’s laws and policies concerning TV commercials are quite strict.

According to Shepard, commercials cannot interrupt programs, and only air at the beginning and end. Nor can they consume more than 10 percent of broadcast time.

With commercials occupying no more than six minutes of every hour, British ad agencies have become far more artful in their attempts to seize attention.

Note as well that a number of well-known filmmakers got their start making commercials. Among them are Ridley Scott (“Alien” and “Gladiator”), who made thousands of them from the late 1960s on, and Alan Parker (“Mississippi Burning,” “Angel Heart,” “Fame” and “Midnight Express”).

Who knows if a future Oscar will pop out of a toaster during the BTAA screening?

2009 British Television Advertising Award Winners

Where: Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Screening Room, 701 Mission St., San Francisco
When: 2, 4, 6 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 2 and 4 p.m. Sunday
Tickets: $6 to $8
Contact: (415) 978-2787, www.ybca.org

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Staff Report

Staff Report

A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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