Four decades after they first appeared, the remaining memorabilia from one of the most memorable ad campaigns in the UK are still sought-after collectors’ items.
Mugs, T-shirts, badges, aprons, straws and even sneakers complete with pom-poms regularly turn up on eBay. All bear distinctive red-and-white stripes – and all carry a warning to beware of Humphreys.
The odd thing was that Humphreys never existed outside John Webster’s creatively fertile mind. They were never seen, but their milk-thieving activities prompted the Boase Massimi Pollitt creative chief’s advice to "watch out, watch out – there’s a Humphrey about".
It is a slogan that has hung around long after BMP produced a series of TV commercials in the 70s for Unigate. But it was the merchandising that has led Dave Trott, a contemporary of Webster at BMP, to call it "a viral phenomenon before the internet even existed".
Humphreys, supposedly shy and elusive characters whose presence was indicated only by a red-and-white straw with which to suck up the milk, were yet another testament to Webster’s ability to file things he saw and heard at the back of his mind for possible future use.
What’s more, the Unigate campaign encouraging more children to drink milk was a perfect example of how he was happy to change course creatively if research suggested an idea would not work.
Webster’s original plan had been to introduce characters based on his wartime memories of the "squander bugs", swastika-sporting, insect-like characters who encouraged people to help Hitler by wasting things such as food and electricity.
They were to be his inspiration for another set of characters with bad skin, no hair and missing teeth who were weak and small because they hated milk.
Jim Williams, the account planner, said it was the worst idea he had ever researched – focus groups found the characters a complete turn-off. However, he suggested that if Webster turned them into cuddly figures who loved milk, he could have the makings of a powerful campaign.
The result was Humphreys, whom Webster chose to make shy and retiring because he thought making them cute would be boring. He introduced them with a line he adapted from a police campaign of the time that warned: "Watch out, there’s a thief about."
The result was an all-round win. Children all over the country sang the Humphrey song, decorated their school bags with Humphrey stickers and were invited to join the Humphrey Club. Milk sales soared and Webster won a D&AD award for his work.