The Disturbing World Of British TV Commercials


Fellow Americans, what do you look for in a commercial voiceover? Something non-threatening and reassuring? Maybe something slightly overbearing but ultimately avuncular? Portentous but knowingly so? Sure. Any of those would be a correct answer. A sane answer, even a patriotic one. But most certainly of all a non-Britannic answer. After five years of living in Britain and Ireland and watching shedloads of native television, I can attest that these days the British are tending toward something more unsettling in their commercials.

Why? I’d like to think it’s a dark eruption from the tortured soul of Albion. Some insular affection for unease as a subconscious penance for imperialist sins. As though as a nation they have Pinhead from Hellraiser where their Don Draper should be. But the fact is I’m just not sure at all.

Take the commercial above, part of an ongoing campaign from Birds Eye, featuring Willem Dafoe as a friendly but nevertheless menacing and intrusive talking polar bear. There seems to be no effort to match the voice to the product; as long as it scars the soul it’ll do. In this case I suspect the ploy is a demonstration of the oft-trumpeted off-beat British sense of humor, a mnemonic strategy of cognitive dissonance and silliness. Certainly nobody mixes Willem Dafoe’s voice and make-out music without obvious comic intent. Other spots in the campaign have clear comic signifiers as well.

Less clear are the motivations of the people behind the current ads for Lurpak (a sadly named brand of Danish butter).

Their use of a half-singing, half-accusing Rutger Hauer to pitch their tasty wares certainly appeals to me but unlike most people I stayed up late the other night just to see him in Escape from Sobibor. Considering that their use of the Rich Man’s Busey (or the Poor Man’s Nolte) replaces a long-running and obviously adorable campaign produced by Aardman it’s probably safe to give them the benefit of the doubt as far as knowingness goes—but the thread is thin.

The next two commercials are neither amusing in and of themselves nor with reference to general extrinsic factors. But paired together they combine to create something greater than they deserve. First here’s actor Timothy Spall (father of Rafe and amusing weirdo in his own right) for Wickes, one of a seeming endless number of Home Depot-like DIY chains.

And here is Spall again for British Gas.

Given that there’s nothing especially handymannish about Spall’s working-class London growl (unless you think “The Armando Iannucci Show” was a documentary), you have to wonder why two advertisers with products so oriented towards cosy domestic tranquillity would feel that Spall was the perfect spokesman. Sometimes these ads are played one after the other which is at least a Spall-and-a-half too far.

But when it’s all post-dubbed and done those are just guys with slightly creepy, deep, gravelly voices. Unbeloved insurance company Aviva, however, have taken it a bit further. This isn’t so much a matter of voiceover but of overall content. They have an extensive campaign airing now featuring actually-beloved sketch comedy actor Paul Whitehouse in a series of harmless unfunny attempts at light comedy relating to insurance. Oh it’s all well and good for travel insurance and home insurance and pet insurance and that sort of thing but what about life insurance? Sensibly they decided to cut even the lightest comedy out of the life-insurance spots. Unfortunately to even weirder effect.

To their credit subsequent viewings make it clear that the final twist is impressively well-foreshadowed for such a short piece. Quality, though, is not the issue—that Lurpak ad is beautifully shot and edited—tone is. If this is the result of an industry-wide lurch to the uncanny then I’m all for it. But if it is, as I worry at my darkest, least charitable moments, more a symptom of a culture-wide tendency towards signing up any celebrity for any task that any unknown could do just as well, then it’s a damned shame. 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.

Perhaps, though, there really isn’t any mystery to it, no dark interpretation. Maybe they don’t find smug ghosts selling insurance to their vaguely Elektra-fied daughters to be in questionable taste. Maybe laughing at the tough-guy menace of Dafoe and Hauer is a way of celebrating that they have built a society in which, knifecrime aside, they are generally far-removed from violence. And maybe Spall’s earthy voice tells them that it’s not just the ambitious media studies robots, or the privileged, or the well-connected that deserve to be heard. Maybe it’s a shame there aren’t more ads like these.


Related: Eight Great Commercials With Writers As Pitchmen


TG Gibbon is unknown but really couldn’t do any better.