WHAT I LIKED before I knew what I was SUPPOSED TO LIKE – Paul Burke

My childhood, to put it mildly, was not a middle class one, so I was spared that haughty parental diktat to watch BBC and not ITV.
Thames and LWT were our channels of choice which meant that I grew up watching Opportunity Knocks, Benny Hill, Man About the House and The Sweeney.
Good job too because watching the commercial break during every episode of On the Buses turned out to be the perfect preparation for my future career.

I must have seen thousands of ads but the ones that evoke the fondest memories are the Woolworth’s Christmas extravaganzas.
Veritable feasts of sparkly Yuletide naffness, each one crammed with the celebrities of the day.
This one features, among others, Kenny Everett, Georgie Fame, Liza Goddard and a young Ray Winstone.
I still love its purity of purpose: to sell things at Christmas.
And when you compare that honest, unpretentious joy with the faux-solemnity and conceited “virtue” of the John Lewis ads, don’t you just yearn for the “Wonder of Woolworth’s”.

Clearly influenced by “Man About the House,” I was becoming impatient to leave home and share a flat off the Fulham Road with the kind of groovy guys and chicks who were getting their jeans on (and off) in this 70s sensation for Brutus.
The tune – specially composed for the ad – became a Top Ten hit and the whole commercial had me thinking, “I can’t wait. In a few years’ time, this will be my life!”
And it was.
Sort of.
In that I went to Wembley Market and bought a pair of Brutus jeans.

Wearing those jeans, I’d secretly but frequently play the “guitar” in front of the mirror, which is why this commercial struck such a chord.
I can now see how cleverly it tapped into two burgeoning phenomena – young people discovering old music and older people discovering nostalgia.
The ad sent the album straight to No.1 and after years in the wilderness, The Shadows re-formed to play sell-out concerts all over the world. That’s how well advertising can work, and it certainly worked on me.
I bought that album immediately.
At Woolworth’s, obviously.

But it wasn’t just TV ads that caught my eye, I also noticed some outstanding press ads.
I don’t need to say anything about instant effectiveness of this one because I know you’ve just put your fingers over the headlights.

Two things I also coveted as a kid were a custom car and a kickin’ sound system.
So an ad that sold one while alluding to the other was always going to turn my head.
This was such an inspired way of illustrating the apparent folly of trying to match hi-fi components from different manufacturers.
When I started work in despatch at AMV, three days after leaving school, I saw the framed original of this image in Ron Brown’s office. And I remember thinking that if he did that ad (and he did), this must be a very cool place to work.

Images like that are now relatively easy to create using Photoshop.
Back then, however, they’d have to be painstakingly put together by skilled re-touching companies like John Sherfield’s studio.
John Sherfield was one of the funniest people I’ve ever met and in writing this wonderful ad, Steve Grounds captured him perfectly.
People talk endlessly about “Tone of voice” and some nitwits on LinkedIn even claim to be “TOV Specialists”.
But I doubt any of them will ever create a “TOV” as brilliantly bang-on as this one.

That was a particularly good example of the kind of writing that I was now starting to appreciate.
This long-forgotten ad for a long-forgotten holiday company is another one, and it remains one of the finest pieces of copy I’ve ever seen. Reading it now, I realise how much craft and skill the best writers and art directors will put into everything they do.
Even a small black & white press ad.

By now, I’d started to appreciate the craft and skill that went into great TV ads too and was especially impressed by engaging and original product demonstrations.
These two terrific examples have stayed with me.  One simply says that “This car is fast”; the other says “This car is manoeuvrable”. Things that had been said countless times about countless cars but I’d never seen them expressed as ingeniously as this before.
And I’m not sure I ever have since.


If it’s okay with you, I’m going to finish with one of my own ads. Obviously, I didn’t write it – that’s David Abbott lying under the big red Volvo – but it was the last press ad I helped produce at AMV before departing to become a copywriter.

My job was to get the car to the shoot and the ad to the publications and I remember the original idea was to have the welder’s baby underneath the car, then the welder himself but the client rejected both suggestions.
David Abbott then volunteered to lie down in the line of duty and the ad was approved.
One of Abbott’s maxims for writing copy was “A small admission gains a large acceptance” and he was at his best when putting something of himself into his work.
Many of his most famous ads were written in the first person, his wife’s recipe for roast lamb found its way into a Sainsbury’s ad but this was the first time that he – quite literally – put himself in the picture. The result is superb; its flawless copy complementing that arresting visual.

I’d just started as a copywriter when I first saw it in print and remember thinking “One day I hope I can write an ad as good as this one”.

And all these years later, I’m still hoping.

5 responses to WHAT I LIKED before I knew what I was SUPPOSED TO LIKE – Paul Burke

  1. Laurence Keogh says:

    Thank you for enriching my day with that Fiat ad – I only half-remember seeing it once before – cw? ad? – also: so nice to be reminded of your fabulous Volvo welding ad – not least because of David Abbott’s hair: so long!

  2. Mike Whipps says:

    Ah the nostalgia. When people wrote ads that didn’t have to tick a plethora of boxes to appease the easily or professionally offended

  3. Long before I knew Paul as a copywriter, I knew him as a colleague. He brought, and brings, a common sense to both that is vanishingly rare.

  4. Robin. says:

    In the late 80s I was starting as a copywriter. I’d buy stacks of British magazines for the wonderful ads before seeing them in D&AD. Not all, of course. Living costs being what they are now, I’d be struggling to buy magazines so liberally. But no fear. However hard I try, it’s almost impossible to find ads worth buying a magazine for now.

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