Countdown synopsis: Britain has been known for its very macabre and grotesque collection of Public Information Films (PIFs) over the years: including (but by no means limited to) the “Dark and Lonely Water” which showed a black-hoodied figure haunting children who’d succumb to many unfortunate circumstances – and thus their inevitable deaths – by drowning in deep waters, in turn traumatising a whole generation of children (including my own mother) back in the 1970s. Unfortunately, times have changed since then. We don’t have haunting public information films being produced anymore, especially since the death of the long-lived, and long-loved, Central Office of Information (COI) in 2011. Personally, I don’t like to call any sort of commercial produced post-COI a “public information film” – it doesn’t seem right. PIFs just haven’t been the same since then, hence why this countdown is appropriately named the “Most Effective British Adverts” because – as effective as they are – they are not worthy of that PIF-rep and they never will be… well, unless they reinstate the COI, I guess.
“I am the fire that leaves you homeless: a heart attack in aisle six; the prescription you cannot collect. I am the boiled sweet stuck in your child’s throat: the motorway pile-up that leaves you traumatised; the food shopping you cannot do. I am the reason you need a wheelchair: the flood that leaves you stranded; the empty house when you return from hospital. I am a crisis… and I don’t care who you are.”
– British Red Cross, “I am a Crisis” commercial
10: “On Your Child’s Life” – Fire Kills, 2013
The first ad on this list is one of the fairly-recent commercials from the lovely folks at Fire Kills. In this ad, we see a young boy looking very ashy playing in a burnt out house. By the looks of it, we already know where this is going: “why the hell would a child be playing in a burnt out house?” you’re probably wondering. Well, after guilt-tripping parents to promise they’ll test their smoke alarms on clock change day after “15 children died in house fires (last year in England)”, it turns out the boy is in fact a ghost of one of these children. We get a haunting shot of the boys face with black soot protruding from his nose as he says, “You did promise didn’t you? Because you can’t turn back time…” fading into nothingness as he walks away, leaving us the boy’s charred out bedroom. And there you have it… blatant emotional blackmail. But it works doesn’t it? I mean you feel pretty crap about yourself afterwards: you feel like you’ve just left a young child to burn to death in a house fire and it’s all your fault! On a lighter note, a YouTube commenter indicated that the boy starring in this ad also stars in the British children’s television programme, Topsy and Tim, from CBeebies. Not entirely sure if this is true, though… but it looks a hell of a lot like him!
9: “Tree” – St John Ambulance, 2013
Here’s another one that is unexpected and hits you right in the feels. A young boy and his dad are happily playing football when the dad gets a phone call. Upon his complete ignorance, the boy decides to climb up the tree right behind him when suddenly a branch snaps, causing him to plummet and recoil off the ground quite graphically. Interwoven throughout this are shots of a woman casually washing up and looking outside making us believe the woman is perhaps the young boy’s mother. However we quickly learn that this is not the case: upon the boy ricocheting off the floor like a rag doll, we see the woman frantically rushing outside to rescue… her laundry from the rain. Yes, the woman and the boy are in two completely different places – which makes us feel even worse, as the dad is absolutely hopeless and nobody is around to save the boy. Apparently the mobile dad was using is absolutely worthless in ‘boy-falling-from-a-great-height-with-a-fatal-impact’ situations… he doesn’t even bother ringing a paramedic! I swear they make dads look like imbeciles in commercials like this, for example: how many TV shows, cartoons, movies etc do you see where the dad in the family is a complete and utter cretin? Probably too many to count. The dad from ‘Peppa Pig’ springs to mind, for sure… I mean he is a complete numbskull. Apparently dads are completely useless in all aspects of modern life apart from playing football with their kids. (What a crock of s**t…)
8: “Dead Man Talking” – Transport for London, 2013
What did I say about worthless dads? “I could be at home now, watching tele with the kids. Or I was feeling about going for a pint… because that’s all I’m good for.” Okay, maybe he doesn’t say that end bit: “…instead I’ve punctured my lung, and they’re slowly filling up with blood.” Woah, okay. That escalated quickly… a bit like your speed. Damn, s**t gets pretty real almost immediately. We see the talking corpse of a motorcyclist lying motionless on the tarmac after trying to overtake a car. He stares solemnly straight into the camera whilst paramedics around him try to resuscitate him. I find the moment where the defibrillator sends shockwaves rippling throughout his body the most gruesome part, but it is still rather brilliant in terms of special effects. From my own personal experience living in London, it’s not the motorcyclists we should be wary of: it’s the bloody cyclists… god the can be such a nuisance. They dangerously weave in-between traffic, switch between riding on the pavement and the road, acting like the road is theirs… they even like to attach cameras to their helmets and upload their shenanigans on YouTube. I appreciate the healthy environment cycling promotes, but I think there should be more ads aimed at cyclists – because not all road accidents involving cyclists are the motorists’ fault. Sorry I’ve lost my trail of thought for a minute there… let’s move on to the next commercial.
7: “Sarah’s Story” – Motor Neurone Disease Foundation, 2009
I’m not entirely sure why this commercial is called “Sarah’s Story”, but I presume that’s supposed to be the name of the woman in this ad… personally, I would have named it “Crippled” or “Maimed” or something more fitting. We see a woman dressed rather formally walk into a large and empty room with nothing but a wheelchair (no… I don’t know why she does that either). The door slams shut just as the woman begins to walk out after mistakably entering. An invisible force then begins to attack her violently and strip her from all her clothing, possessing her from the inside to make her convulse and seizure on the floor in tremendous pain. The lights then flicker on and off as we see the woman slumped on the floor in a vegetative state, with saliva dribbling from her mouth. The ‘force’ then drags her motionless body and thrusts her into the empty wheelchair. Everything we have just witnessed is meant to be a graphic visual representation of what it feels like to have motor neurone disease. It’s a very powerful ad, and it is a shame it didn’t get the attention and reputation it rightfully deserves.
6: “Life Story” – Barnardo’s, 2013
The first time I saw this one on TV, I was absolutely gobsmacked. It is such an amazing piece of art, as well as featuring the phenomenal talent of Ludovico Einaudi, one of the greatest composers of our era: if you have watched the BAFTA Award Winning Film ‘This is England’ (which I highly recommend you watch if you haven’t already, it’s one of my favourite films of all time and is superbly powerful), you may recognise the music from its soundtrack… it’s a truly beautiful piece. We see a young man entering a counselling session with Barnardo’s (a British children protection charity) as he sits down and begins to talk to the counsellor behind the camera (who probably acts as the ‘camerawoman’ metaphorically, if that makes sense). She asks how he’s been recently, of which he says he has been really happy and content with how things are going for him at the moment, but puts his head in his palms the minute he decides to talk about the past: “…I still have the nightmares, though.” Once he raises his head back up we see the same guy looking slightly younger, but looking slightly unkempt with shabby hair. He gets up from the chair and is in a very agitated and highly-sensitive state as he says, “it’s like I can see a way out. That woman from Barnardo’s is alright, we talk a lot. And I trust her… everyone else can just do one.” He barges the camera as he walks off, and once again he morphs into a younger teenage version of himself who is now very hostile: “The woman from Barnardo’s just doesn’t give up: keeps asking why I nick stuff, do drugs, hit people… I told her where to go, I told my foster parents where to go… just like the last ones. I don’t trust no one, I ain’t changing EVER!” – he angrily kicks a chair as he walks out of shot, and as the camera pans in his direction we see the same chair hurtling across the room, but this time we are accompanied by a young child. Yep, you guessed it… it’s still the same young man we saw at the beginning. He continues to morph younger and younger as he explains his corrupted and abusive childhood. We get one final close up of the boy’s face as a young infant who simply whispers, “I’m scared.” Einaudi beautifully plays us out with an ending text promoting Barnardo’s, thus finishing a truly artistically brilliant commercial. Everything about this commercial is well and truly mesmerising; the music, the storyline, and most of all… the simplicity. I’ve never seen an ad like it. It just makes you think of the many thousands of children who have been wrongly stripped from their freedom to have a decent childhood, and it makes you want to desperately help them… which is what the ad is supposed to do! 10/10 from me.
5: “I am a Crisis” – British Red Cross, 2012
This one just sends chills down my spine every time I watch it, as the visuals and the haunting music playing in the background gives me cold sweats. We see a ghoulish hooded woman dressed anti-chromatically, walking ghostly through fields, streets, roadsides and neighbourhoods with her German shepherd. She is meant to be a visual metaphor of many crises, from the serious: “I am the fire that leaves you homeless… a heart attack in aisle six… the boiled sweet stuck in your child’s throat… the motorway pile-up that leaves you traumatised… I am the reason you need a wheelchair…”; to the trivial and everyday not-so-serious, that are considered by the very few to be, ‘crises’: “the prescription you cannot collect… the food shopping you cannot do…” (of which makes us appreciate how lucky some of us are that these are merely materialistic, and things could be a whole lot worse). What’s really chilling about this advert is the ending: her and her dog approach a house where we see a woman tending to an elderly man inside (perhaps?) as she heartlessly concludes, “I am a crisis, and I don’t care who you are…” suggesting something baaaaaaad is going to happen, but we don’t get to see it as the camera cuts to the end text. (God dammit!)
4: “Helpless” – St John Ambulance, 2012
This commercial is entitled “Helpless” to make you feel just that… yep, here’s another commercial that’ll make you feel like crap because you can’t jump through your screen to save someone from their inevitable death which could have easily been prevented. I’m not going to talk an awful lot about this ad, but what we basically see is the story of a man who is diagnosed with cancer, go through gruelling chemotherapy, become weak and feeble, survives it, gets fit and healthy, only to… choke to death on a burger. Yeah, that’s pretty much what happens. But what I can’t help find slightly comical about this ad is that apparently absolutely nobody surrounding him at that barbecue knew basic first aid… what kind of world is this supposed to be?! I mean are you telling me that not a single soul there knew simple back blows or the heimlich maneuver? What on earth are they doing running around like a bunch of headless chickens, while a guy in front of them is desperately chocking to death? And what sort of effort does the guy next to him do: you call that first aid?! He barely pats him on the back! “I think he’s choking!” No sh*t, sherlock… he’s just lodged a piece of burger in his throat, whaling his body around and clutching his neck, just for the banter… don’t worry about him asphyxiating and turning white: it’s all part of the joke! Idiot. Anyways, the message is that the same number of people die as the result of no basic first aid as people who die of cancer… which I can’t help but slightly doubt. Don’t get me wrong, some people may panic a bit too much to be able to keep calm and really think about what to do, so don’t end up giving first aid or leave it too late… but I think first aid can be simple when you really boil down to it. I’m sure it’s very rare to die of choking… unless you’re on your own of course… which is a terrifying thought… (oh my god!) But if somebody is chocking, whack their back so hard that they’ll end up coughing up their own spine. If that doesn’t work, wrestle them to the floor and jump on their thoraxes until they eventually cough up the lodged culprit! Works for me every time: that’s my top tip to you, you’re welcome!
3: “Break The Cycle” – Barnardo’s, 2008
You may or may not recognise this commercial, as I have also included it in my TOP 10: MOST CONTROVERSIAL UK TV ADVERTS countdown. Basically, it received over 840 complaints from viewers who found it, “upsetting and not suitable for children who would be watching” and if my memory serves me, I think they banned it altogether in the end. Which is a shame, because I really liked this one when I first saw it back in 2008… and that seems like a century ago, how scary. Anyways, we see a young girl’s life of mugging people, going to jail, using drugs, and household abuse cycle over and over and over again, emphasising the sound of the slaps and her sobbing each time it repeats… until we just want it all to bloody end as it’s going to fast and omg please slow down or I’m going to have a mental breakdown. Funnily enough we feel just like how the girl feels at the end: uncontrollably sobbing and hoping for a way out of this manically endless cycle. It’s like being on a roundabout spinning faster and faster, gaining incredible impetus so you feel light headed and makes you want to be sick. That’s basically this advert in a nutshell, and weirdly I’ve now made myself feel uneasy.
2: “Torture By Any Other Name” – Helen Bamber Association, 2007
[This commercial contains scenes of graphic sexual content some viewers may find upsetting] As you can tell by the disclaimer, this one is not going to be a joyride. Starring the one and only Emma Thompson, we get to graphically watch an upsetting real life case of a woman named ‘Elena’ who became a victim of sex trafficking. The commercial parallels Elena‘s former life of, “work(ing) on a market to support her family… (and how she) wanted to help people and become a nurse” with that of her new identity, ‘Maria’ who now lives an exact opposite life: “servicing up to forty men a day… (and how she) doesn’t feel anything anymore.” The two identities’ stories are interwoven together rather oxymoronically: Elena tells her story whilst exhaustedly slumped topless on a bed, while it is intercut with scenes of Maria, quite graphically, being raped by an accomplice offscreen (of whom gropes and smacks her now and then). It is very hard to watch, especially when we know that there are thousands of unfortunate women like Elena out there who endure this type of horrific torture each and every day. “I was Elena… I am Maria. Help me, I’m here.”
1: “If London were Syria” – Save The Children, 2014
I have saved the best until last (as always), so we move on to one of the most jaw-dropping commercials I have ever seen. Styled in a ‘second-a-day’ video, we see the life of a normal, happy little schoolgirl living in London. It begins with the girl blowing out her candles on her birthday cake, surrounded by her loving friends and family, looking really cheerful. We then progress through her normal life: innocently cuddling her stuffed rabbit; playing at the park with her dad; being kissed on the cheek by her male classmate; you know, just the usual everyday activities of the average child. Her life is also intercut with news bulletins via radios and television playing in the background, which hint at military attack on Britain. There is also a moment where the girl is sitting close to the camera with her father reading a newspaper in the background, of which the front cover reads: “Government declares Martial Law” – we now anticipate that the girls everyday life is about to be completely destroyed by the effects of war… and we’re right. We see her father pointing angrily at a neighbour and declaring, “You deserve to get shot!”, as well as scenes of the girl looking up to the sky at a passing helicopter, and her family evacuating their home with police sirens blaring in the background. But in another shot a few moments later, we see her father assuring her mother, “We are going to stay.” Bad move. Cue the shots of the household electrics blacking out, her parents quickly ushering her to the basement whilst anxiously asking, “Whats happening?!” What we see just a few seconds later is an airstrike destroying her local school, exploding right behind her as she screams on impact. After this, we see the family evacuating their town in their car rather hastily – but doesn’t last long as in the next shot we see that the family car has totally been destroyed by gunfire behind them as they run away. Following this, we see the family living very roughly on the streets (with the girl sleeping under a bridge and eating rotten food), as they presumably make their way to a safe zone. Once again we see them running away from gunfire in the distance as they reach a checkpoint, only for her father to be left behind due to being captured just as the girl and her mother arrive through the safety gates: “Daddy!” – “Emily!” they frantically exchange. The last few shots are the girl looking very fatigued and chronically depressed, until the advert comes full-circle as the mother hands the girl a small cake on a tin dish with a single candle placed into it… for her birthday. The girl stares solemnly into the camera as tears fill her eyes whilst her mother coyly sings ‘Happy Birthday’ to her and tells her, “make a wish, darling.” And then we finish, leaving us completely speechless. It’s such a powerful advert, although I don’t remember ever seeing this commercial on TV, but by god they should have showed this way more often. In fact they should still be showing it right now! I know it would have opened a lot of peoples minds. “Just because it isn’t happening here, doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.”
Final thought: So there we have it. Ten of the most effective public information films which aren’t really public information films… so what the hell are they? I have absolutely no idea. I think commercials since the death of the COI will be sailing in the PSA boat from now on. Okay I take that back, it’s not that severe. I guess I’ll have to continue calling them “PIFs” even though I don’t want to. It’s like having an annoying relative such as an aunt or uncle or cousin you don’t really like to call ‘family’ but you have to as it feels wrong not to… it’s a really awkward situation.