Feature

Celebrating 100 years of iconic British advertising

As the IPA marks its centenary, Campaign looks back on British advertising's evolution over the past 100 years - from wartime posters to the 1960s 'golden age' to a drumming gorilla.

Celebrating 100 years of iconic British advertising

Like sex, advertising was invented in the 1960s – or so it appeared.

It’s not that nobody did much of it before then. Only that never before had it seemed so cool or such a hot topic.

Which means this month’s Festival of British Advertising, marking the centenary of the IPA, has an inconsistent story to tell.

Click to visit "The History of Advertising in Quite a Few Objects"

While there has been memorable UK advertising throughout the past 100 years  – including the pubic-service ads of World War II – much of the output until the 1960s, now widely considered the "golden age" of advertising, was not distinctive.

The 1960s was the era when popular culture shifted fundamentally over a very short period. Music, fashion, film and literature all underwent a revolution while Britain enjoyed unprecedented post-war prosperity.  

"Some argue that, ever since the advent of moveable type, it is the symbiosis between advertising, technology and popular culture that has allowed advertising to keep abreast of the zeitgeist"

Meanwhile, commercial TV proved it could deliver advertising in a way that belied its relatively recent arrival and with an effectiveness that the internet still struggles to match after two decades.

Samantha Heywood, curator of the Festival of British Advertising, who has picked roughly 120 TV, print and digital ads from hundreds of contenders, says: "Because our selection isn’t scientifically based, we’ve inevitably concentrated on the post-TV era and showing how much advertising has shaped popular culture.

"That has meant everything from the Oxo family to the Gold Blend couple and the Aids campaign of the 1980s. As a teenager at the time, I’ve never forgotten the impact it had and how successful it was."

Lynda Bellingham's Oxo advert | 1983 - 1999

Just how advertising came to have such a societal impact defies easy explanation. The popular theory is that it was led by a classless new breed of creatives united by an eagerness to explore new ideas.

Their contribution is certainly one reason why a lot of viewers began asserting that the ad breaks were better than the programmes. 

What’s less often pointed out, however, is that TV’s technological advances made it imperative for agencies to hire such people in order to take full advantage of the medium.

Indeed, some argue that, ever since the advent of moveable type, it is the symbiosis between advertising, technology and popular culture that has allowed advertising to keep abreast of the zeitgeist as much as creative prowess.

Maybe this helps to explain the undercurrent of insecurity that has always existed in adland. Never does this manifest itself more strongly than in the periodic polls undertaken by the industry to find out what the public thinks of it. 

The latest one carried out by Credos, the Advertising Association’s think tank, will do nothing to stiffen the collective sinews. Retail scored an approval rating of 84% in the survey, which asked people to what extent they trusted a selection of industries.

Advertising managed a score of just 50%. Even the banking industry, so long reviled for its greed and dishonesty, managed 58%. 

Should adland beat itself up over this or accept the findings with a resigned shrug? A lot people in the industry believe the latter. It was ever thus, they argue. 

But while the reputations of other consumer-facing businesses such energy, banking and telecoms tend to rise and fall depending on whether news about them is positive or negative, advertising’s reputation seems to be on an irreversible downward spiral. Moreover, Credos tracking suggests that young people, always the most positive about advertising, are no longer so.

James Best, Credos’ chairman, attributes advertising’s plummeting reputation to a number of reasons. One is the sheer ubiquity and weight of it, which has almost doubled since the early 1980s. 

Another is that advertising is perceived as being less useful than it used to be, with Google and others allowing people more ways to access the things that interest them.

What’s more, Best claims, everybody is a marketer now. The dominance of the service sector in the economy means most people working in it have been schooled in marketing and/or advertising – though not necessarily very well. Think about the ads made by The Apprentice contestants.

Paul Feldwick, a marketing consultant, author and former DDB planning chief with an agency career spanning more than 30 years, suggests people mistrust advertising – except when they don’t.

"People underestimate how much they’re influenced by it," Feldwick argues. "They consider it trivial but they’re happy to book a cruise down the Rhine that they’ve seen advertised in a Sunday supplement because they regard it as an established medium."

Some actually view the issue of advertising’s standing as small beer compared with other challenges the industry must confront at the beginning of the IPA’s second century.

One is advertising’s intrusiveness – a problem exacerbated by the internet. This is compounded by widespread concerns about privacy, which have been intensified by the likes of Eric Schmidt, chairman of Google’s Alphabet parent, who famously declared: "We know where you are. We know where you’ve been. We can know more or less what you’re thinking about."

And the intrusiveness doesn’t end there. Some industry watchers fear a backlash at advertising’s increasing incursions into public space, with more buildings becoming giant advertising hoardings. Meanwhile, the European Union indicated last year that it wanted to dump rules preventing TV channels from showing more than 12 minutes of ads each hour.

All of this begs the question of what advertising needs to do to survive the next 100 years. Perhaps one leading creative inadvertently summed up the challenge when he remarked that the work of John Webster, one of the creative catalysts of British advertising’s golden age, was OK in its day but would now be considered "far too populist".

"The public loves entertainment," Feldwick counters. "Yet entertainment is a word seldom heard in advertising circles these days and certainly not by those working in the digital space."

And he suggests the industry could find an unlikely source of inspiration for the future: the street busker. "Buskers quickly realise that the better their show, the more money they earn," Feldwick points out. "Of course, aggressive beggars make money too – but they risk going to jail."


Campaign’s favourite iconic ads from

the past century

What are your favourites? 

‘Daddy’ 1915 ‘Careless talk’ 1940

The two world wars allowed governments to influence public attitudes as never before. 

With Great War conscription not starting until 1916, Britain had to rely on a volunteer army. Hence this conscience-pricking ad of 1915 by artist Savile Lumley, in which a man ponders his answer as his daughter asks: "Daddy, what did YOU do in the Great War?"

The other campaign uses humour to lighten the dark days of 1940. Under the theme "Careless talk costs lives", one ad, created by Punch cartoonist Fougasse, depicts Hitler hiding under a table as one person tells another: "Of course, there’s no harm in YOUR knowing!"


‘Don’t ask a man to drink and drive’ 1964

The government’s drink-drive campaign, which has run continuously since 1976 but which made its debut 12 years earlier, is an outstanding example of how advertising can play a huge part in changing public attitudes and habits.

Indeed, the Department for Transport estimates that its Think! drink-drive campaign has saved 2,000 lives and prevented more than 10,000 serious injuries.

However, the 30-second spot that started it all, created by Halas & Batchelor, avoided the shock tactics now commonplace in drink-drive ads. It showed the passage of an office Christmas party and offered the rather obvious warning that "drinking and driving are dangerous".


Smash ‘Martians’ 1974

It’s doubtful that any group of advertising characters did more to persuade people that eating instant food was natural, modern behaviour, or explode the myth that packaged-goods promotion had to be dreary, than the Smash Martians.

Remarkably, they were the result of an idea that Boase Massimi Pollitt copywriter Chris Wilkins honed and refined out of a throwaway remark in the pub from his legendary creative chief John Webster.

"It’s crazy," Webster remarked. "If anyone came down from another planet and saw that we bothered to peel potatoes, boil them and mash them up when you can get it out of a packet, they’d think we were barmy."


Heineken ‘Refreshes the parts…’ 1974

Heineken’s "Refreshes the parts other beers cannot reach" changed a nation’s drinking habits. Yet one of Britain’s most famous campaigns might never have happened had Anthony Simonds-Gooding, then Whitbread’s marketing director, not trusted his instincts after poor focus-group feedback. His agency account man, Frank Lowe, convinced him that it would work.

Legend has it that Collett Dickenson Pearce writer Terry Lovelock and art director Vernon Howe were warned by Lowe not to come back from a shoot in Marrakech until they had cracked the brief. Lovelock claimed his winning slogan was the result of "a mixture of desperation and mental incubation".


Benson & Hedges ‘Iguana’ 1978

Alan Waldie, the legendary art director who died in December last year, left the industry a priceless legacy. For one thing, he showed that ad restrictions could spur creativity. For another, he proved that people didn’t necessarily have to understand a campaign for it to succeed.

His surreal "Iguana" for Benson & Hedges cigarettes while at Collett Dickenson Pearce ushered in a new era of commercials with such high production values that the public came to expect TV ads to be better than the programmes that surrounded them. Meanwhile, Waldie’s supporting print work featuring birdcages, mouse holes, eggs and sardines intrigued people as much as it baffled them.


Conservatives ‘Labour isn’t working’ 1978

It beggars belief that an ad can have played a major role in changing the political course of Britain. But in the case of the iconic poster featuring a dole queue snaking out from an unemployment office and carrying the slogan "Labour isn’t working", it’s no exaggeration.

More astonishing still is that the Saatchi & Saatchi creation only appeared on a handful of sites and was backed by a tiny budget. 

However, Labour’s public outrage served to guarantee the poster massive front-page coverage while helping to propel Margaret Thatcher to power – and introducing US-style political advertising to Britain.


British Airways ‘Manhattan’ 1983

The feel-good factor was in short supply in 1983. UK unemployment had hit three million as shipyards, factories and coal mines closed. British Airways, being readied for privatisation, symbolised the troubled times. Almost bankrupt, it needed ads that would restore City confidence, motivate staff and put bums on seats.

Saatchi & Saatchi answered these diverse requirements with a Spielberg- inspired spectacular based on the premise that the number of people carried across the Atlantic each year was greater than Manhattan’s population. 

Here was the flag carrier showing a swagger never seen before. And beleaguered Britons loved it.


Levi’s ‘Launderette’ 1985

Did a commercial ever create a stir to rival that of Bartle Bogle Hegarty’s iconic "Launderette"? 

Of course, the youth market has transformed beyond recognition since teen idol Nick Kamen stripped to his jockey shorts and spin-dried his Levi’s 501 jeans in front of startled customers at a small-town US launderette.

Yet, with a combination of humour and sex appeal, the film has stood the test of time. Not only did it propel Levi’s, previously regarded as old-fashioned urban workwear, into the ultimate in youthful cool but it cleverly exploited young people’s aspirations while presenting 501s as an alternative to the scruffiness of punk.


Volkswagen ‘Changes’ 1987

Volkswagen’s "Changes" marked a pivotal moment in the recognition by advertisers of women’s growing independence and the acceptance that they could no longer be patronised or ignored. While the spot, created by Boase Massimi Pollitt for the second-generation VW Golf, perfectly captured the materialistic Thatcherite 1980s, it also (quite literally) put a woman in the driving seat.

With Alan Price’s Changes as its soundtrack, the ad features a love-spurned Paula Hamilton tossing aside all her lover’s gifts – but keeping the keys to her Golf. Channel 4’s The 100 Greatest TV Ads described it as a "sign that feminism had at last reached the admen".


Cadbury ‘Gorilla’ 2007

It took the spectacle of a gorilla drumming to a Phil Collins song to really demonstrate the public’s appetite for sharing anything that took their fancy online – and showed advertisers the potentially huge leverage effect viral could give them on their investment in traditional media. In short, it proved the internet could be used for the subtle art of building brands.

For Cadbury, the ad, created by Fallon and never meant to be scrutinised for meaning, chimed perfectly with its strategy of presenting its brands as an antidote to austerity, promoting them as affordable treats and making them synonymous with entertainment.


Channel 4 ‘Meet the superhumans’ 2012

Not only did Channel 4’s "Meet the superhumans" put the London Paralympics on the map but it changed the way Britons viewed disability. Maybe forever.

It was a formidable challenge that confronted Channel 4, which had the broadcast rights to the event. Not only was the public generally indifferent about the Paralympics but nearly one in four people admitted feeling uncomfortable around those with disabilities.

"Meet the superhumans", created by the broadcaster’s in-house 4Creative team, sparked an extraordinary shift as the Paralympics sold out for the first time and delivered Channel 4 its biggest audience in ten years.