PERSPECTIVE: A century of posters shows the evolution of the brilliant idea

Is ’Labour isn’t working’ really the best poster of the century?

Is ’Labour isn’t working’ really the best poster of the


You can only have fun arguing about it - which is part of the point of

books like Campaign’s 100 Best Posters of the Century. The other is to

provide a historical record.

Should this year’s Campaign Poster Awards top prize-winner, Sony

PlayStation’s ’nipples’, be in it? In my opinion, yes. It confirms to

the basic rule of the best posters then and now: keep it simple.

’Nipples’ knows its target consumer, and will alienate only those who

would never buy a PlayStation.

I know not everyone will approve. This was self-evident from the 100

Best Posters jury judging day back in the summer.

Under the excellent Ron Brown’s wise stewardship, the jury found an

extraordinary degree of accord regarding the best work from the first 60

years of the century. Then it got lively.

A cynic might suggest that from the 70s onwards we were judging the

jury’s own work and that of their rivals, so things became more

subjective. I’d suggest there was something less Machiavellian afoot.

The real problems began with the 80s and 90s ads. By definition, there

hasn’t been time for the drip-feed of retrospective approbation.

However, there’s a larger issue.

The UK ad industry is very hung up on the notion of the ’idea’. It was

at the heart of Amanda Walsh’s speech on the Oriana. The implication was

that many music-dominated or visual-only ads lack an idea. But what does

’an idea’ mean? In UK adland, it’s regarded as a truth or claim made

about a brand and expressed in a single hit. That hit is often disguised

in British advertising with a verbal or visual pun. As Axel Chaldecott

suggested in a stimulating letter last week, it’s time to reconsider

what we mean by an idea.

Consider ’fcuk’. It was slammed as ’just a cheap pun’ when it first


Which, of course, it is. ’Where’s the idea, luv?’ was the sub-text. To

me, the idea is in the attitude. In this regard, fcuk is like much

successful fashion advertising. Look at Gap, and - arguably - Benetton.

Perhaps this is why so few agencies crack fashion or youth clients. They

want to ’advertisify’ the work. But it’s obvious that thousands of new

young French Connection consumers are able to relate to an idea in fcuk.

Likewise the legion of PlayStation aficionados.

The joy of the poster medium is that it continually challenges

advertising practitioners to pare down their messages. The best

contemporary poster campaigns may now have gone further: they have

managed to dispense with the formal advertising idea as we knew it. We

should indeed acknowledge the lasting brilliance of ’Labour isn’t

working’, The Economist and Benson & Hedges, but ideas didn’t die with

the 80s. They’re just different. And, that’s something to celebrate, not



Become a member of Campaign

Get the very latest news and insight from Campaign with unrestricted access to, plus get exclusive discounts to Campaign events.

Become a member

What is Campaign AI?

Our new premium service offering bespoke monitoring reports for your company.

Find out more

Looking for a new job?

Get the latest creative jobs in advertising, media, marketing and digital delivered directly to your inbox each day.

Create an alert now

Partner content