Before I became a Copywriter, I just liked popular ads.
I didn’t know they were popular ads, of course, they were just the stuff that was visible and fun and spoke to me.
The more I worked in advertising though, the more it seemed to me that the industry had a real problem with popular ads.
A snobbery that mass-market work was dumbed down. And, conversely, a belief that the work without wide appeal was way cooler and cleverer, and more worthy of admiration (and awards).
I always thought this was a bizarre mindset.
The same crooked thinking that led to Booker prize-winning novels being viewed as great works of art, while Stephen King novels were just the easy scribblings of a pulp hack.
So, yeah, like everyone else in this series, I just liked what I liked. How can you do anything else?
The following are the brilliant ads I remember from when I was young and also from my early years in the industry, when I hadn’t quite realised that there was, apparently, a right way and a wrong way.
I thought then, as I think now, that these are the ads that truly connect with people. And surely that’s the point. Easily understandable entertainment as an arrow into the brain – and the shopping cart.
So, where do we begin? Well, of course, we must start with the mightiest, most popular ad of all – the jingle.
Birds Eye Potato Waffles.
Crass, but great.
The cheapo production can’t take away from the irritatingly catchy jingle and the deceptively clever lyrics. Especially, the killer line: ‘Eggs on…gammon.’ (In another version, ‘You can put ham on…gammon.’)
A line of such beauty that Bob Dylan himself weeps on hearing it, knowing he is just a pretender in its presence.
Lyrics that just about make up for the worst pun in the history of advertising slogans: ‘Bird’s Eye Potato Waffles. They’re waffley versatile’.
Lyle’s Golden Syrup.
Here we go. This is what the people want. This is how to do a serving suggestions jingle.
Marching spoons, a nursery-rhyme, ear-worm song, a no-nonsense call-to-action end line…AND SPIKE MILLIGAN, FERCHRISSAKES! Jingle jenius!
Yogo – WCRS.
Right, you’ve got to find a way of selling a new yoghurt-flavoured chewy sweet called Yogo.
So, you give it a neat end line: ‘Yogo is two of my favourite things in one’, and you create a really catchy jingle with lovely playful lyrics.
And, lastly, you shoot a bunch of silly, inventive scenes of unlikely things joined together.
IS THERE A BETTER WAY OF GETTING PEOPLE TO REMEMBER – AND POSSIBLY BUY – A NEW YOGHURTY CHEW? NO, THERE IS NOT! SO WHY DO WE NOT MAKE COMMERCIALS LIKE THIS ANY MORE? WHY? WHY? ANYONE? BUELLER?
McDonald’s Big Mac.
You wouldn’t think that a jingle with no tune to speak of and whose only words were the ingredients of a hamburger could capture a country’s imagination.
But that’s what happened in America in 1974.
The genius bit was in turning the lyrics into one long tongue-twister line and challenging people to say it right.
Not only does this make for a great TV spot but they made it a real-life challenge too: if restaurant customers could say the entire line correctly in under four seconds, they got a free drink.
And millions had a go.
All of which turns a seemingly ugly and hard-sell jingle into an irresistible human idea.
But ask yourself, would any UK Creative have this idea today? No chance – far too uncool.
On the first day at the Watford Copywriting Course in 1983, we were asked what our favourite ads running at the time were.
I said mine was this ad for Triumph Bras, which I’m sure just made the other students and our tutor Maureen Purbrook think I was a creepy perv – but it was the song and the sass that I loved, not the bosom close-ups. (See? Even now nobody believes me.)
But check out that tune! Now that is proper songwriting. If the Brutus Jeans jingle could become a pop hit, then why didn’t they release this?
And is it me, or is that synched camera jiggle + model hand move at the end not seriously cool and stylish?
Sorry, Miss Purbrook. Not sorry.
Cadbury’s Fudge – FCB.
This campaign really jumped out when I was younger. Sweet little stories; great tune; and memorable lyrics.
But one thing confused me for years: the song said that a finger of Fudge was ‘full of peppery goodness’.
What was that all about?
Why would they put pepper in a finger of Fudge?
It sounds horrible.
It was years before I realised they were actually saying ‘…Cadbury goodness’.
But how was I supposed to know? I was a kid – I’d never heard of Cadbury. I didn’t care about the companies that made my favourite sweets – just the sweets.
But then again, I did have a history of cultural misunderstandings as a child.
I knew that the ‘L’ on a car meant ‘Learner’ so, I genuinely thought that the ‘GB’ on other cars meant ‘Getting Better’.
Punk band Snuff.
You know your ad has cut through when a band does a joyful, rip-roaring cover of your jingle.
Punk band Snuff were famous for doing these covers and they were a fan favourite at gigs.
Here are three short, sharp jingle bangers from the boys.
The first one is a little obvious but do you remember the other two?
If one day Snuff could reform and have a crack at Honda ‘Grrr’ I’d die a happy man.
Yellow Pages – AMV.
‘Soap’ ad campaigns have always resonated with the public but never really captured the industry’s love. Very uncool. (Think the OXO family.)
And this kind of real-life campaign storytelling is rarer than hen’s teeth now.
The set-up is rich with promise: we get the chance to write charming and witty real-life stories using the brand/product/service as it is used in life, and people can get to know a character over time (or a group of characters), developing an emotional bond with them and, by association, the brand.
You even end up actually looking forward to seeing the next instalment. (People looking forward to an ad! How bizarre does that sound?)
My theory is that Creatives and clients actually think this kind of work is boring now. Slice of life? Who wants that?
It also makes no use whatsoever of CGI effects, which is how you’re supposed to do ads these days, right?
Plus, of course, there are fewer writers around who can even write such glorious stories. (Take a bow, Mary Wear, for writing this f***ing funny tale with the brilliant James Nesbitt.)
Heinz Soup – Dorlands.
This was a campaign that featured a grandad and grandson going about their lives, occasionally having soup together and giving us a charming glimpse into their close relationship. (Again, name me a single campaign these days that takes this repeatable, emotional, character-driven, story-telling approach.)
The ad I remember best is this powerful, pared down story from way back.
A story that also opened this copywriter’s eyes as to how sometimes it’s what you don’t write that matters most.
Actually, there IS one campaign that consistently tells charming emotional stories about normal people and their normal lives and their genuine, natural love for a particular product.
Take a bow, McDonald’s (and Leo Burnett London).
Here are just three examples of the kind of witty, beautifully crafted stories they have been telling for decades.
Indeed, it is my belief that McDonald’s is the best UK brand campaign of the last thirty years – by a mile.
D&AD should give it a special Lifetime Achievement award for its incredible body of work (like Hollywood gives to legendary directors).
Cadbury’s Smash – BMP.
My first copywriting job was with Andy McKay at BMP and our office was the one next to John Webster.
(Imagine: one minute I’m at Watford College, the next I’m working next to John Webster. That’s like a teenage trainee footballer being thrown into their first match and partnering Messi up front.)
In my first week, I nicked a compilation reel of his best work and was blown away by a brilliant ad for Cadbury’s Smash.
But no, not that one – not the Martians ad.
It was the ad that came before that campaign; the one that explained this weird new product with a simple and compelling logic twist.
It was a stupid idea and an intelligent idea, all at the same time. (Cadbury’s Smash isn’t a rival to the potato; it’s the other way round).
The words are so beautifully written and the logic is so ridiculous, yet strangely true.
One of the ads that shaped me, I think.
St. Ivel Cream – BMP.
How great was John Webster?
Well, this charming spot didn’t even make it onto his Best Of reel…and there’s 84 ads on there!
Why they left this off, I’ll never know.
A lovely human story, woven directly around the product, and told with beautiful restraint.
Aviva Life Insurance – AMV/BBDO.
If you asked people to name their 10 favourite movie scenes, I’ll bet you that pretty much all of them will have a powerful emotional moment at their heart.
Even if it’s a science fiction film, or a horror, or a comedy. (What’s the most remembered scene in Star Wars? “Luke, I am your father.”)
The Aviva campaign where Paul Whitehouse played a different character each time ran for years and went largely unnoticed by the industry.
Which must be the reason why this incredible execution also seemed to pass ad people by.
It’s all nice and fluffy and then – wham! – it ends with one of the most heart-wrenching moments you will ever see in an ad.
Still gives me the chills.
(Written by Mike Hannett and the late, great Dave Buchanan at AMV.)
Perfume ads are crap, aren’t they?
Beautiful crap, but still crap.
So, how come this one has stayed in my head for forty years? (“LouLou? Oui. C’est moi.”)
Why is this ad more appealing and stylish than all the rest?
Even now, I can’t quite put my finger on it.
Guess it’s just got that ‘je ne sais quoi’.
Ronseal Quick-Drying Woodstain – HHCL.
Let’s be honest, this is one of the most famous and iconic ads ever made.
You might not want it to be, but it is.
It’s thirty years since it ran but stop anyone in the street and they’ll know it.
In fact, they won’t just know it, they’ll have said it!
This startling ad pulls off the almost impossible trick of being seriously odd yet also enthusiastically embraced.
But never by the industry, it seemed to me.
I think it just fried their brains. It followed no existing idea structures and was maybe the most hard-sell ad ever made – which meant it was the most uncool ad ever made.
I just think it’s a one-of-a-kind masterpiece.
The words look even weirder written down.
‘This is Ronseal Quick-Drying Woodstain. You can’t miss it – it comes in a tin with Ronseal Quick-Drying Woodstain on it. It protects, and it’s rain-proof in about 30 minutes. Which means in about 30 minutes your wood’s rainproof and protected. So, if you’ve got wood to stain and you want it to dry quickly…use Ronseal Quick-Drying Woodstain. It does exactly what it says on the tin.’
God bless you, HHCL. We will never see your like again.
This old b/w ad has appeared on these pages before (in Mark Denton’s take on ‘What I liked…’) but I wanted to pass on the true story behind a brilliant moment within it.
A quirky thing that I definitely remember going around at the time: something silly and naughty that just really appealed to people.
Basically, the VO actor playing the Esso Blue dealer character was late to the recording session so one of the ad guys stepped in, just to get the sound balance right.
When it comes to the bit where the character gets flustered by the woman on the phone, he accidentally said, ‘I’m your Esso Blee Dooler’.
Everyone thought this was hilarious so they stuck it in the actual ad and it became a big hit with TV viewers who would say it real life.
Honestly, when will we ever learn? When it comes to ads, boys and girls just wanna have fun.
Perrier – Leo Burnett.
In the late 80s my second copywriting job was at the deeply unfashionable Leo Burnett.
But on arrival I discovered that it was Leo’s who did the simple and iconic ‘Eau’ campaign for Perrier.
I loved this campaign: a simple, smart idea and lovely big branding.
Just how an ad should be.
Maybe it’ll be okay here, I thought. And it was, in its own deeply unfashionable way.
Indeed, over the next few years, the department became a breeding ground for stellar talent, such as Neil Dawson & Clive Pickering, Ben Walker & Matt Gooden, Nick Kidney & Kevin Stark, and my partner, Mark Tutssel.
My stay at Leo’s taught me that poor places can still have great people working in them, and not to be an advertising snob.
Forgive me for finishing with some of my own work – not really in the spirit of this terrific series. But it strikes me that this whole thing of ‘liking the work you like and not necessarily what you’re supposed to like’ should also help guide a Creative throughout their career, not just their life before advertising.
For me, the most satisfying thing I’ve ever done is still the Gordon’s Gin ‘Green’ campaign that I created with Mark Tutssel.
It was so exciting to get this out of Leo’s and see it get richer and richer over time.
It was everything I’d ever hoped to be capable of doing when I was at Watford only four years earlier and it was amazing to see it get such a great response from the national media, and from the public. (Applauding the cinema ad! Requesting life-size copies of the 48-sheet posters!)
Which meant it was also hugely disappointing (and baffling) to see it so consistently snubbed and ignored – and criticised – by the industry.
No awards or mentions of any kind, at any show, in its entire five-year run.
Lots of Creatives said they liked it, but the ‘tastemakers’ knew better.
Still, I’m clearly over it now.