Because advertising is a product of its times, when I was asked to put J. Walter Thompson's work for Unilever during the 80s in perspective, I looked for inspiration from documentary film-maker Ken Burns. After 12 hours of film footage backed with a soundtrack by Madonna and Blondie, I had to look at the work itself.
The JWT/Unilever work for this period picks up on this cult of individuality with a conservative bent. Oxo cubes are a perfect example. Showing graphic visuals of everything from pots of stew to people's warts, this campaign at first generated complaints from irate viewers. I think because it challenged how we looked at the familiar, and the ordinary, it pushed the viewer's creative limits. Kudos to the brand managers at Unilever who recognised that pushing limits is what makes good advertising. Not surprisingly, two years after the campaign broke, it topped the TV Times poll as the favourite television campaign in all of Britain.
In print, Oxo used spreads; one side showed delectable close-ups of simmering "comfort food" meals, while the other presented recipes seemingly torn from a newspaper, or jotted down while on the phone with mom. A clever idea that created an on-going, and appetising, Oxo recipe book within the ad, making the old reliable Oxo cube seem very much of the moment.
Making the old new again was a challenge Lux soap also faced.
Drawing on Lux's Hollywood of the 20s heritage, the campaign was tagged: "Star treatment for your skin." It broke through the clutter with crisp, clean, sexy images of famous, or seemingly famous, people in highly stylised black-and-white photos reminiscent of the work of the stylish photographer Horst P. Horst.
Meanwhile, Persil laundry detergent went for the opposite, but nonetheless impactful approach. With an absence of copy, other than the brand name, the simple, colourful, cut-out images of one Persil campaign, could have doubled as the pages of a children's book. It was all about innocence.
Other ads for Persil were also simple and understated; one, for example, was a beautiful shot of a shirt that would make Thomas Pink jealous. The prominently placed laundering instructions were a subtle, yet very effective endorsement of Persil. If Persil were the ideal detergent for a shirt of this calibre, imagine how eloquently it would clean cloth of a mundane nature.
In the US, Unilever and JWT launched Lever 2000 - a soap that combined deodorant and skin moisturising benefits. It was the beginning of a relationship that would take bar soap advertising to an even more intimate level; part, by part, by part.
In the mid-80s, it was morning again in America, and JWT helped re-position Unilever's Wisk laundry detergent away from its long-running campaign of women being tormented by the chant, "Ring around the collar". The campaign, which had its beginning in the Khrushchev era would, like perestroika, open up to be more inclusive and democratic - dirt and grime were now everyone's concern.
As the 90s approached, the Iron Curtain parted and the Iron lady prepared to depart the world stage. Unilever and JWT had successfully weathered another decade, and were poised to take on their tenth, with advertising relevant to its era, and true to its brand.