I was surfing history the other day - as one does when one isn’t
doing something more important (such as missing copy dates or forgetting
to go to meetings) - when I wandered into an arcade full of Great Old
Ideas. Being a generous bloke, I’m offering them as Christmas stocking
As you’ll see, with a bit of polishing these Old Ideas could easily be
recycled as trendy New Ideas. Just like Tony and Peter polished up Old
Labour and recycled it as trendy New Labour. (The way they’re going on,
you’d think Tony and Peter invented the idea of polishing Old into New.
Cobblers. Aladdin started it and creatives have been doing it for
Clients, stop reading now. Some, or all, of the following are sure to be
presented to you as agency recommendations over the next few weeks.
And it would be most unkind of you to say they’re just old ideas
Save that for when the agency shows you new ads. Why change the habit of
OK agency guys, they’ve gone. Get browsing. Once upon a time, back in
1911, a media man who was tired of shooting himself in both feet decided
to put his lower limbs to better use. He cut stencils into the soles of
his boots, supplied them with ink via a tube running down the insides of
his trousers and walked around London stamping ads on the pavements.
Presumably, the target market was dogs. At the time, his brilliant new
medium proved to have no legs. But today it might be a great little
runner on the information superhighway. What do you think?
Some 50 years earlier, Edward Lloyd, the owner of Lloyd’s Weekly
Newspaper, gave meaning to the phrase ’cost per thousand’ when he
stamped coins of the realm with the name of his weekly organ. He then
used the coins to pay his employees’ wages, so they quickly passed into
The Government, sadly, condemned Lloyd’s splendid promotion. It bought
up and melted down the mutilated coinage. But, in my view, the idea’s
well worth another spin in the cybermalls with those silly little 5p
Hard to melt down, virtual coinage.
Following in Lloyd’s footsteps, though not shod in stencilled boots (as
far as is known), came Thomas J. Barrett. Barrett was one of the great
geniuses of advertising history, as celebrated in his day as both the
Saatchi brothers put together. Ingeniously recycling Lloyd’s idea - and
thus proving admen discovered recycling long before Tony and Peter -
Barrett imported a quarter of a million French centimes at the end of
the last century and stamped ’Pears Soap’ on them. In those days - long
before the mere mention of a European currency caused politicians to
mangle their knickers - French coins were legal tender in England. But,
once again, an unimaginative Government failed to appreciate the
transparent loveliness of the Pears promotion.
It banned the centimes and foreign currency was never again legally
acceptable in the UK. How different recent history would have been had
Thomas J. Barrett not pushed his luck. Norman Lamont would still be
Chancellor, and the economy would still be up the ERM without a
Branded centimes weren’t Barrett’s only money-making idea. No sooner had
postage become a mass medium than he badgered the Government into
letting him print Pears ads on the back of the penny lilac in 1881 and
the halfpenny vermilion in 1887. An early fan of sponsorship, he offered
to print all the 1891 census forms for free, provided they were branded
’Pears Soap’. But, yet again - almost unbelievably - the dumb Government
rejected the idea. (It’s a pity Lady Thatcher wasn’t around. She’d have
privatised census forms quicker than you can say windfall tax.) Barrett,
incidentally, was the first of the big spenders. Terrifying members of
the Pears family, who resigned from the company board in protest, he
increased the brand’s advertising budget from pounds 80 to pounds
130,000 in the 1890s. Big moolah a century ago (and a perfectly
acceptable budget now, as far as I’m concerned, if any naughty clients
are still reading). Despite the Pears’ family’s faint-hearted fears, the
brand’s sales responded enthusiastically to Barrett’s largesse.
The most off-the-wall of all Victorian advertising men was the Glasgow
retailer, Thomas Lipton. He sent parades of skinny men through the
streets carrying posters saying, ’Going to Liptons’, followed by parades
of fat men labelled, ’Coming from Liptons’. He drove chubby pigs through
Glasgow bearing banners emblazoned, ’Liptons’ Orphans’. He imported
gigantic cheeses, which were drawn by elephants to Liptons shops, where
coins were stuffed into them like sixpences into a Christmas pudding.
Pieces of the cheese were then sold, like edible lottery instants, to
milling crowds hoping to get lucky. Lipton also offered one of his
cheeses ’weighing not less than five tons and made from one day’s milk
of 8,500 cows’ to Queen Victoria - who was not amused. She could not,
she replied, accept gifts from people to whom she had not been
Even the ingenious Lipton, however, didn’t think of this one. In 1896,
the Royal Academician, W. B. Richmond, reported the following explosive
new medium: ’I was in my garden and I heard sudden reports of
Presently, from the sky fell masses of green and red paper advertising a
tooth powder. These fell all over my garden and I am not exaggerating
when I tell you that they were spread over two acres at least. ’
Though manifestly providing saturation coverage - of gardens - artillery
shelling failed to become the medium agencies hoped it would. But then,
they failed to maximise its potential. Big ideas call for big
The cost of the space programme, for example, could be subsidised if the
astronauts showered ads on the world. Never mind a few Royal
Academicians’ gardens, they could cover whole continents. A truly global
And they could drop some on Mars, to await the first tourists: Mars ads
on Mars. Is that a big idea, or what?
Eschewing artillery, the impresario, William Smith, promoted one of his
plays by affixing suitably worded sticky labels to everything in sight,
including ’omnibuses, cabs, Windsor Castle, the Old Bailey courthouse,
steamboats, and measures in public houses both in London and the
country.’ Smith claimed his new medium was a huge success, although
there is no evidence of a full econometric analysis having been carried
out. Whether or not it would have won an Institute of Practitioners in
Advertising Effectiveness award is, at this moment, uncertain.
Anyway, Smith’s stickers had to compete for clients’ budgets with
In 1861, annual handbill distribution was estimated at 1,150,000,000 in
London alone. Smith, a keen market researcher, established that during a
long walk through London the average pedestrian - whether or not wearing
stencilled boots - would have 250 handbills stuffed into his fist.
Cutting through the clutter to reach the target market was, however, a
headache even then. A media guru of the time said: ’Any man can stick up
a bill upon a wall, but to insinuate one gracefully and irresistibly
into the hands of a lady or a gentleman is only for one who, to natural
genius, adds long experience.’
The reluctance of ladies and gentlemen to accept such handbills was
heightened by their suspicion that many of them promoted ’cures’ for
disreputable diseases. Regrettably, as the Internet has reminded us, sex
and new media frequently go hand-in-hand.
Or whatever. Nonetheless, virtual handbills are making a comeback in
They’re called Websites.
Sex and advertising have always gone together too. (In this season of
peace, goodwill and agency Christmas parties, who could doubt it?) The
suitably titled prix d’honneur for having run the first known
advertisements in history goes to the call girls of Pompeii, for their
below-the-belt classifieds. These can still be clearly deciphered,
carved in the stone of the once-naughty city. This precisely targeted
direct response medium, which is still to be found, hard at work, in BT
phone boxes, is another example of the longevity of truly great
Some 2,000 years later, telegrams were invented and were immediately
embraced by avant-garde agencies everywhere. (Nothing new there.
Agencies have always been dedicated followers of fashion.) In 1875, a
large furnishing company despatched 5,000 telegrams all timed to arrive
’at the fashionable dinner hour, when most of the best families would be
assembled’. This was described by the furnishing company (as campaigns
usually are by those who run them) as ’one of the boldest advertisements
carried out in modern times’. Telegrams continued to be a booming medium
for about 50 years, advertisers often sending out up to 40,000 at a time
- despite a hiccup in 1906 when a ’nervous old lady’ wrote to the Times
complaining that she had been awoken by her doorbell ringing in the
middle of the night.
She answered the door to receive a telegram which, on tremulous opening,
read: ’Peter Robinson’s Sale Now Proceeding.’ Telegrams, when you think
about it, are simply e-mails in little buff envelopes. Except e-mails
are friendlier. They don’t ring doorbells in the the night.
If you fancy nicking - sorry, recycling - any of these Great Old Ideas,
feel free. I doubt anyone else will read this silly article, so nobody
will know. Happy Christmas.