OPINION: Cowen on ... John Smiths

Dead cert for a Pencil? John Smiths has no time for such arty-farty
rubbish.
File under ... P for Phoenix Nights.
What would the chairman's wife say? Do any southerners drink our
product?

I mean no criticism of TBWA/London's head of traffic, Ian King, when I say that his performance as the face of John Smiths' cardboard "No-Nonsense man was starting to feel a bit tired. It had a great run - and provided some fantastic point-of-sale material that inevitably ended up in many a student's living quarters. However, the campaign was crying out for something more versatile and engaging - and for that it needed a three-dimensional character.

So it's back to a celebrity frontman for the brand that spent eight years with Jack Dee before the comic's impatience with his commercial pigeonholing became all too apparent - and his demands on use of his image became all too restrictive.

Indeed, the difficulties surrounding the end of Dee's stint might have convinced John Smiths that the accepted wisdom about bitter and celebs not mixing might well hold true. Aside from sports sponsorship activity, no other brand in the sector has recently enlisted a famous face. John Smiths, though, is not a brand that thinks like the rest.

Its rivals increasingly appear to see the task of advertising bitter as akin to persuading drinkers that it is, in fact, lager in brown form.

Hence we've been treated to hip soundtracks and fast-cutting, swirly visuals in Caffrey's ads which position the drink somewhere between Stella Artois and speed.

Tetley's men are as smooth as James Bond and Boddingtons has recently kept the product out of its ads altogether.

In contrast, John Smiths has been notable for its confidence, not only in showing and discussing the product in great detail but also in embracing the stereotypes and prejudices that come with the category. From Arkwright to Jack, John Smiths' spokesmen have been blunt, grumpy, just the type you expect to see blowing the head off a pint down the local. In contrast to the pseudo-hip efforts of many of its contemporaries, it's given the brand great standout and, I'd argue, greater credibility.

With Peter Kay, there's an attempt to broaden the appeal. His performances in the ads have the gruff ignorance with which we like to associate the stereotypical bitter drinker; however, there's also a winning charm that shines through via the rejection of pretension. MediaVest has promised a sports-focused buying strategy for the ads - and if they can plant Kay's Sunday League football spot among the Nike and Adidas World Cup spots then they'll hugely maximise its comic effect. These are ads that engage by cheerfully undercutting all the heroes and ideals that usually surround us in a male-oriented ad break.

There is, however, a big risk in the casting of Kay - and it's one that TBWA should be well aware of. With its Holsten Pils Fast Show ads, the agency fell foul of importing comedic talent that overpowers the brand - and it risks doing the same here. The ads are so close to Kay's own material that we risk seeing this campaign as an extension of Phoenix Nights. This criticism might have been true of Dee; however, his scripts discussed the product so specifically that it was never likely to slip out of mind. Ironically for ads that pride themselves on bluntness, the Kay spots communicate the brand values in a vaguer way and the product placement is incidental and perhaps too subtle.

But there's one factor in John Smiths' favour. More than 15 years of consistent "no nonsense positioning has built a strong degree of brand recognition. John Smiths has spent its time and money giving itself a familiar strapline and if it wants to play more loosely with the idea, then it's arguably earned the right - and the ability to get away with it. If drinkers disagree, then there's always King waiting in the wings.