How I learned from advertising's dark arts
A view from Richard Taylor

How I learned from advertising's dark arts

Cigarette ads were evil, creatively brilliant, and taught me that advertising held the power to drive major social change, writes Macmillan Cancer Support's top marketer.

Growing up in the 1960s and 70s exposed me to some of the most creative advertising of our time. In an industry with few regulations, much of it was sophisticated but more was heavy-handed, patronising and sexist. The opportunities to shape public opinion were limitless.

"Pregnant Man", an out of home ad from 1969 created by Saatchi & Saatchi for the Health Education Council promoting contraception, was creatively disruptive.

As an 11-year-old I thought it was saying that through scientific progress I could one day expect to give birth. It slightly disturbed me but it got me thinking and that was as much as my comprehensive secondary school teachers were doing at the time. That I recall it today must say something about the impact of advertising.   

The glamour I associated with smoking was very much influenced by the sexiness of the classic Benson and Hedges cigarette campaigns. With their creative brilliance unbridled by advertising standards, they were simply sublime.

Smoking was glamorous and men would populate the earth.

It’s mind-boggling that killer products were so liberally promoted and this despite empirical scientific evidence that smoking was the main underlying cause of lung cancer.

Yet these advertisers subverted their sinister marketing with beautifying overtones that went unchallenged culminating in the "Special Filter: swimming pool" epic in 1978 which could have been promoting pretty much anything but because of its brand association we still believed that fags were sexy. 

Smoking was glamorous and men would populate the earth. To a youngster noticing the impact of advertising I may well have been confused, but I was interested.

To complete a trio of unforgettable ads, "You know when you’ve been Tango’d" in 1991 was a masterclass in disruptive coat-tailing.

Later in the 90s, Sunny Delight, a suspiciously chemical-loaded soft drink, became the country’s market leader overnight. However, it swiftly went out of fashion when kids literally started turning orange. This turn of events added a certain prescience to the hilarious use of violence in Tango’s ads that left their consumers orange-faced and reeling from a slap round the jowls. 

Along the Toys R Us. How we scoffed at their crass Americanised advertising, but then how we repented as we witnessed the migration of our fickle customer base

It was also in the 90s that my career began to rely on advertising. The ads at the Early Learning Centre, where I worked, were clever, values-based and drew on the creative expertise of Gerry Anderson.

Our somewhat superior if not smug positioning in relation to other toy retailers and their moral-free approach to the peddling of violent, sexist toys helped the company’s impressive growth.  

But then came along the US behemoth Toys R Us. How we scoffed at their crass Americanised advertising but then how we repented at leisure as we witnessed the migration of our fickle customer base who were naturally seduced by the "pile it high, sell it cheap" approach of our new neighbours. Our smugness usurped by naivety, I would never doubt the power of advertising.  

I moved on to the Imperial Cancer Research Fund where we had more important advertising objectives to meet. At the time, awareness of cancer incidence was woefully low so we set out to challenge public understanding.

Life with cancer is still life. No one wants to be defined by their illness - this insight came from the very people we help

Our first ad depicted three children playing in a meadow each identified by what their future might hold; teacher, doctor, cancer patient. This single campaign shifted recognition that the likelihood of any of us getting cancer was not one in 10 but, shockingly, one in three. Today it’s worse still at one in two and still more awareness is required.

And for 20 years I have remained involved in the promotion of cancer awareness and never more than in my current role at Macmillan Cancer Support. I had admired the charity’s "Not alone" campaign in 2013 showing people being "hit" by cancer and falling in slow motion before being caught. A striking metaphor that we can all relate to.

Our current campaign, "Life with cancer", has been our most successful yet and focuses on a simple universal truth: that life with cancer is still life. No one wants to be defined by their illness and this insight came from the very people we help. With the right support more people than ever before can carry on with their lives of being parents, grandparents, mates, colleagues, lovers.

My career has been massively influenced by the power of advertising. From those that glamourised smoking and helped create one of the worst health blights on society to the phenomenal support from the public in helping us combat the disease.

I’ve worked on many commercials and the thrill of just possibly creating a Cannes winner or shifting public opinion never abates.

It’s hard to contain a realistic expectation that ads can still move the public en-masse. Eye-watering budgets make it hard for charities, but then we’re not selling chemically-loaded drinks or cigarettes – and that has to help!

Richard Taylor is executive director of fundraising, marketing and communications at Macmillan Cancer Support and a member of Campaign’s Power 100.