CLOSE-UP: LIVE ISSUE/TYRE ADVERTISING - Tyre ads continue to push the creative boundaries. As Dunlop hires 180, Jenny Watts reports on the creative potential of tyre advertising

Dunlop's appointment of 180 last week to its pan-European task appears to indicate a desire by the tyre manufacturer for cutting-edge creative, something for which the Amsterdam shop is increasingly renowned.

Dunlop's appointment of 180 last week to its pan-European task appears to indicate a desire by the tyre manufacturer for cutting-edge creative, something for which the Amsterdam shop is increasingly renowned.

And Dunlop would not be the first such company to expect some top-level work to be created around this aesthetically unremarkable rubber ring.

Indeed, this low-interest purchase has proved itself open to surprisingly dramatic possibilities over the years.

In 1974, Goodyear started the ball rolling by launching a revolutionary new tyre with an endorsement by the former police chief Sir Robert Mark in a style so wooden that it could only be authentic. As he uttered the immortal words: 'I believe Goodyear tyres make a major contribution to road safety', a cult ad was born.

Early tyre ads may have been product-focussed, but the genre was quick to milk its association with the glamorous world of Formula One, leading to an increasingly celebrity-oriented approach.

When Goodyear launched its new GT tyre in 1985 with a pounds 4 million campaign, it drafted in British personalities Nigel Mansell, Sir Harry Secombe and Judith Chalmers. To more mainstream marketers at that time, such a branding approach may not have looked like a radical step forward. However, as the tyre market had traditionally been geared to dealing with vehicle manufacturers rather than consumers, such a shift was of huge significance.

It took the process of tyre buying out of the classic distress purchase category and made it something for the discerning and image-conscious motorist to think about.

The pivotal point for tyre ads as visual extravaganza came with Pirelli's 1986 'double indemnity' ad by McCormick Publicis. The spot reworked the plot of the film noir classic of the same name, featuring a wife who sabotaged the brakes of her husband's car. It spawned a host of copycat mini-drama ads, and won golds at the Creative Circle and the 1987 British Television Awards. Significantly, it also helped boost UK tyre sales by more than 30 per cent.

Gerry Moira, the executive creative director of Publicis who was responsible for the ad, believes that ''double indemnity' set the ball rolling for the rest of the genre'. And although Woollams Moira Gaskin O'Malley's follow-up commercial in 1988, called 'the day the earth stood still', was of a markedly different filmic style, it was still on a scale be-fitting the opening sequence of a James Bond film.

In 1993, Michelin joined the big bucks stakes with a multimillion-pound campaign launching its Pilot range. This came hot on the heels of Pirelli's announcement that it had signed the sex symbol Sharon Stone to be its new pin-up girl in a campaign through Young & Rubicam.

In the same year, Dunlop raised the creative stakes yet further with the seminal 'unexpected' ads shot by Tony Kaye through Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO. The visual extravaganza, which saw a piano falling in a desert accompanied by bondage paraphanalia and a cascade of marbles, all to a Velvet Underground song, certainly lived up to its name, and it is still recognised as one of the most enduring ads of the past decade. Tom Carty, the copywriter behind it, acknowledges that the ad pushed boundaries, saying: 'On that job we had a particularly good client.'

Association then moved to athletes to convey the speed, grip and superior tread of the tyre. Pirelli's work in 1994 featuring Carl Lewis once again reset the bar when it came to creative opportunity. The striking image of the athlete in the red stilettos is one of advertising's most enduring, and the strapline, 'power is nothing without control', was seminal in the brand's advertising history.

Moira is quick to point out that the very staidness of the product is a constant spur to a creative's imagination. 'It's such a boring category that creativity is your only weapon,' he says. 'Just explaining what the product does is neither informative or interesting.'

David Grey, the managing director of Armando Testa, which has handled the Pirelli account for 18 months, adds that visual extravaganza helps convince auto dealers, a crucial link in the supply chain, that a tyre will sell to consumers.

'A large part of the skill in tyre advertising is getting the dealers to buy into it, so that it becomes a recommendation. That's why it has to be creative.'

Both these factors could explain why tyre advertising is often more imaginative than generic car advertising. However, they also suggest an alternative creative route. In January 2000, Michelin embarked on a simple, no-nonsense strategy that urged consumers to 'make sure they show you the logo', in a campaign through TBWA/London. Although not a visually rich ad, it nevertheless reinforced the importance of branding through the easily recognised Michelin Man.

The tyre industry has yet to react to the decision by the car manufacturer Ford to offer a choice of tyres on its marques in the United States, following a spate of fatal incidents suffered by its 4x4 vehicles, all of which were fitted with Firestone tyres.

Mike Vaughn, the public affairs manager for service programmes, Ford Motor Company in America, explains: 'Research said that, previous to the Firestone situation, tyres weren't a major determinent to consumer choice.

However, in light of the Firestone recall, the choice of tyres has become more important to customers.'

Quite what impact this decision could have on generic tyre advertising if extended worldwide remains to be seen. Certainly it would empower consumers with the opportunity to dictate their personal choice.

However, Malcolm Summerfield, the chief executive of Summerfield Wilmot Keene, which handles Goodyear's corporate account, does not believe that this will have any impact on the way tyres are bought. 'It won't really affect it - when you come to replace the tyres on your car, most people are inclined to go back to the fitting shop and fit the same type.'

So unless a tyre brand has the luxury of a strong icon to create itself standout, such as the Michelin Man, it seems likely that the big visual epics are here to stay.