Oh, the '80s were pretty frightful, but the festive ads just delightful
A view from Mike Oughton

Oh, the '80s were pretty frightful, but the festive ads just delightful

Christmas ads are quicker, whizzier and shinier now than in the 1980s. But is the advertising actually better, asks McCann London's creative director.

As far as decades go, the 1980s always gets a bad rap. If it’s not the bad rap, it’s Thatcher’s iron fist, or the football hooligans that are getting a right kicking.

And it’s too easy to pick on the fluorescent legwarmers, big hair and shoulder pads of the era. However, as a child of the 80s, I reckon life back then was ace. But, then again, I was on a near-constant Space Dust high for most of the decade, so I may not be entirely objective.

Of course, the best time of the year in the 80s, as now, was Christmas. And with festive ads filling every single commercial break at the moment, I find myself harking back to the TV spots of my youth and remembering that they were made with just as much love, craft and skill as the campaigns rolled out today. If not more so, probably.

For example, in its heyday, Woolworths was as famous as John Lewis is now for its Christmas TV ads. Its dazzling "spectacular" commercials were exactly that. Spectacular. And featured more top celebrities than the Blankety Blank Christmas special. Event advertising before the phrase "event advertising" was coined. Woolies had the whole nation wetting itself in anticipation of who would be flogging them jars of Quality Street, Brut aftershave gift packs and blank cassette tapes that year.

Now, you millennials might chuckle at the thought of these analogue recording media (tapes). But let me give you some context. In 1983, there was so much money in blank C60 tapes that Woolworths had the budget to hire none other than chirpy bog brush-haired singer Joe Brown to star in its 90-second commercial (think Ed Sheeran meets Shane Richie, but better).  And he was ably assisted by a galaxy of A-listers including the world’s strongest strongman, Geoff Capes, foul-mouthed darts champ Eric Bristow, and game show host, Lenny Bennett (before he became rhyming slang for Leo Burnett).

The elaborate song-and-dance routines, filmed in the Deptford High Street branch by the look of it, embodied what Christmas was and should still be about – family, wonderment and a time for sharing crap, thoughtless presents. Basically an ad giving people what they want, without the need to go all "lateral" and putting old codgers on the moon or p-p-p-penguins coming to life and abducting children, or whatever. Woolies 1 John Lewis 0.

Another 80s festive hit was Oxo’s 1984 "My Christmas" ad, part of the much-loved campaign that ran like a soap opera across the whole decade. Back when marketing clients had the passion and patience (oh, and the lack of sophisticated effectiveness measures) to let TV campaigns run and run on our screens.

In this ad the Oxo mum, played by genuine TV star actress, Lynda Bellingham, knocks back the sherry like it’s going out of fashion (which I suppose it was) to stop herself from twatting her annoying family while she’s trying to cook the effin' Christmas dinner. It’s well shot (if a little underlit) and very well performed. And at 40 seconds, the charm and economy of the storytelling is first rate. You could probably remake it now – with a few gags in there about Alexa and the like – and it would still be all gravy, baby.

Way back in ‘84, before five-year-olds were as clued-up as IT graduates, IBM released a heart-warming Christmas ad. I say heart warming. I don’t actually remember seeing this on UK screens, but if I did, I’d have found it stomach churning.

I mean, apart from positively dripping in schmaltz, who does this precocious little sod starring in this spot think he is? Metal Mickey? All I could get out of my Commodore Vic 20 computer at the time was my name flashing up a thousand times. There’s no way he could write lists, draw pictures, make spreadsheets etc. without some serious computer programming knowledge. Which is unlikely, considering he couldn’t even spell the word "Mum" properly. I’m surprised the BACC (the forerunner of Clearcast) let it run. Maybe it wasn’t the Ridley Scott "1984" ad after all, but IBM’s over-claiming commercials, that led to Apple taking off.

Coca-Cola is as steeped in Christmas tradition as train engineering works. It pretty much defined modern Christmas by inventing the red, fur-lined Father Christmas character whose knee we let our kids sit on.

In 1980, its Christmas "I’d like to buy the world a Coke" ad was essentially a version of its hugely iconic "Hilltop" film, but with tinsel and sleigh bells added. All very warm and magical. Exactly right, and of course, as festive and comforting as any Coke Christmas ad before or since.

But I just can’t get out of my head the thought of scores of pony-tailed 80s ad creatives putting their lives on hold for months on end, writing hundreds of wonderful, ambitious scripts in an attempt to crack this iconic brief, only for the client to decide at the last minute to go safe with a Christmas version of "Hilltop".

Yes, Christmas is quicker, whizzier and shinier now than in the 1980s. But is it better? Personally, I’d like to hold onto the nostalgic notion that back in the analogue, mullet, Pac-Man, smoking-on-buses days of the past, hundreds of ad folk would have had their summer months just as ruined by working on Christmas campaigns as the agency people of today. But I’m a romantic old sausage like that. Merry Christmas everybody!

Mike Oughton is creative director at McCann London

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