Ten ads that changed advertising

From the first UK TV ad, to a star-studded internet-only campaign. After this work appeared, things were never the same again.

Advertising is a dynamic industry - perhaps not quite as dynamic as it likes to think it is, but certainly one reactive to the ever-changing media landscape.

Change is 99 per cent process, just 1 per cent event. But those events are crucially important. Over the years, as advertising has adapted to new channels, new media and a fragmented audience, the effect of individual ads themselves as catalysts for change has often been undervalued.

Individual ads - scores of them - have had a huge impact on the way the industry works, thinks and talks to its audience. There are those that defined a newly launched agency; those that marked a fundamental shift in strategy; those by which advertising discovered - wittingly or otherwise - new channels and new audiences.

Paring that list of seminal ads down to just ten was always going to be difficult. And if it wasn't particularly scientific, there was some method to the process.

Campaign drew up a longlist of 30 ground-breaking commercials. Merely to be a great ad (and most of those here are firmly that) wasn't enough. The ads had to have instigated some kind of change in advertising itself. While John Webster's "Martians" for Smash is a much-loved ad, did it really change FMCG advertising?

The longlist was voted on by a number of senior advertising figures, in the UK and further afield; those ads with the most votes made the top ten, and are listed in chronological order.

There were strong cases for ads that didn't make the final shortlist. Saatchi & Saatchi's "pregnant man" for the Health Education Council arguably marks the birth of an agency; HHCL & Partners' "slap" for Tango not only turned around the ailing fortunes of Britvic, it introduced a new wave of iconoclastic advertising that dispelled the notion clients should revere either their brands or their consumers.

There were other leftfield suggestions - Leo Burnett's "bear" for John West Salmon as one of the first virals? Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO's "I never read The Economist" for the first time a minority interest publication used a mass-media ad medium?

There's an argument, too, for including one of Tony Kaye's ads - most probably "girl" for Volkswagen by the then BMP from 1990. Kaye certainly changed the way the industry made films, although not every creative department would argue that his approach was purely a positive.

But we only had room for ten. No doubt, you'll know all the ads featured. You might even agree with some of the choices. To have your say, go to brandrepublic.com/campaign, where you can debate the choices on the forum.


The course of advertising in the UK changed forever at 8.12pm on the evening of 22 September 1955. It was at that moment that 100,000 viewers in London and the South-East with specially converted sets were able to watch the first television commercial to be screened in this country.

The spot, for Gibbs SR toothpaste, was pretty straightforward. It opened with a tube of toothpaste embedded in a block of ice. This was followed by a woman vigorously brushing her teeth, while the immaculate tones of the BBC presenter Alex Mackintosh extolled the virtues of "the tingling fresh toothpaste that does your gums good too".

However, the spot's place in advertising history was solely down the luck. It won the right to go first in a lottery among the 23 opening night offers, beating Guinness, Surf, Lux, Batchelor's peas and Brillo pads.

More than half a century on, it's hard to believe what hostility the arrival of TV ads provoked. Churchmen, teachers and politicians lined up to condemn it as crass and vulgar and predicted it would turn Britons into crazed consumers. The Labour MP John Wilmot railed in the Commons against the "nightly poison of advertising which boosts the sale of goods to the working classes".

Even within agencies, there was considerable scepticism about TV advertising. Brian Palmer, the Young & Rubicam copywriter, then 26, who wrote and produced the Gibbs SR ad, remembers his boss telling him he was making a big mistake.

"He simply said to me: 'You're mad. Television will never be a major medium,'" Palmer recalled later. "He was convinced that commercial television would last no more than about a year."

Half the ad revenue generated on that first night (the princely sum of £26,000) was donated to charity. Yet, despite its modest beginning, TV advertising confounded the doom merchants.

As Palmer points out: "Instead of corrupting the population, it became the engine of Britain's economic growth and prosperity."


The United States of America, 1962. The nation had just emerged from a decade spent restructuring after the most expensive war in history. Every marketing message was brash, didactic and writ large. Everything about the 50s was bigger and better than it had ever been.

As the country edged into a new decade, with a population and president younger than at any time in its history, the old marketing messages didn't seem to apply any more.

The agency that broke the mould was Doyle Dane Bernbach. The client was Volkswagen; the campaign, "think small".

Bob Scarpelli, the chairman and chief creative officer of DDB Worldwide, explains: "The advertising changed the game in terms of art direction and copy. The ad went against all the prior rules of how to sell automobiles. Before 'think small', the car industry ads were very busy and built on the premise of a luxury lifestyle - really a lifestyle that was more typical of the auto dealers themselves at the time than that of the average person. The VW ads in sharp contrast were very real, very honest."

It's hard to think of a more seismic shift in tone and approach for a new kind of consumer. Bill Bernbach's "think small" turned advertising on its head. Gone were the lush locations, the artfully represented cars and the didactic copy. In its place was a small, black-and-white Beetle.

There was little obvious design, no retouching and no artifice. And the copy matched: the tone was at once conversational, humble and believable. Simplicity and honesty were the new bywords for advertising success.

"The campaign began a creative revolution and inspired the creation of new agencies, hot creative boutiques," Scarpelli says. The rumour is the ads also inspired John Hegarty, Lee Clow and Jeff Goodby to consider careers in advertising. Not a bad legacy for an ad for a small car.


Thirty-six years since it was created, "hilltop" is still one of the best-loved and most influential ads in TV history. But it started life on the radio.

Legend has it that the ad was created by the then McCann-Erickson creative director, Bill Backer, when he was waiting for a delayed flight at Shannon airport. As his fellow passengers chatted over bottles of Coke, he penned the line "I'd like to buy the world a Coke and keep it company" on a napkin.

Backer collaborated with two songwriters, Billy Davis and Roger Cook, wrote the remainder of the song overnight and recorded the track with the New Seekers. The completed ad was shipped to US radio stations where it promptly died a death. No-one was interested.

Davis didn't give up, though, and convinced Coca-Cola to part with $250,000 to film the now legendary TV version.

Jeremy Bullmore, a member of the WPP advisory group, describes the ad as "a total breathtaking appropriation by brand of love and tolerance".

Demand for the song was such that the New Seekers were forced to re-record the track - it was only as long as the 60-second ad - and change the line to "I'd like to teach the world to sing".


For many years, Britain's main political parties rejected the notion of using advertising to win power. They had serious messages to impart, they argued, and to sell them like tins of baked beans would just trivialise them.

All that changed with "Labour isn't working", the poster produced by Saatchi & Saatchi for Margaret Thatcher's Conservative Party in 1979. From then on, politicians had few qualms about using ads to dish the dirt on their opponents and creating some storms along the way. Without "Labour isn't working", would controversial campaigns such as "demon eyes" have seen the light of day?

With its image of a dole queue snaking out from an unemployment office and disappearing into the distance, the poster remains the most memorable and effective piece of UK political advertising of all time.

Its fame owes much to Gordon Reece, a former television producer who had worked in the US. Having been brought back by Thatcher to help her prepare for the forthcoming election, Reece was eager to import some of the commercial advertising techniques he had seen work so effectively in the US presidential races.

"Labour isn't working" jumped out at Reece from a number of poster roughs presented to him by the Saatchis' then managing director, Tim Bell. Reece thought it such a wonderful ad that he told Bell to hold it back until the campaign's final stages.

On the face of it, the poster's enduring fame is curious. According to Reece, it appeared on no more than 20 sites and was backed by a budget of about £50,000.

Ironically, it was Labour's knee-jerk reaction to it that was to ensure its place in advertising history. Jim Callaghan's ministers went apoplectic. Among them was Denis Healey, who complained bitterly, thus guaranteeing the poster massive front-page coverage.

Bell, now the chairman of Chime Communications, says: "It was a bloody brilliant piece of advertising. Not only was it the first political ad in Britain to name an opponent, but it was so witty that it has defied all later attempts to emulate it."


What's the connection between a sardine can, an iguana in the Arizona desert and Battersea power station? Answer: absolutely nothing. But that was the whole point of Collett Dickenson Pearce's mould-breaking commercial for Benson & Hedges cigarettes.

Even in the late 70s, the world was closing in on tobacco manufacturers and their agencies. With more and more creative routes closed to them, ever more innovative solutions had to be explored.

For B&H's owner, Gallaher, the problem was how to maintain brand leadership for B&H at a time when the style and tone of its advertising was being increasingly imitated.

Gallaher decided to go for broke, ditching all of its previous work and instructing CDP to come up with something completely new.

The result was a series of enigmatic posters featuring a range of objects - from mouse holes to eggs and birdcages - which seemed to have nothing to do with king-size cigarettes.

The ads may have been enigmatic, but they were utterly compelling. And it was this that the CDP art director Alan Waldie and the writer Mike Cozens were able to translate into the now legendary cinema commercial.

Waldie remembers how Stuart Cameron, then Gallaher's chairman, and Peter Wilson, its marketing chief, insisted that the entire campaign should be sustained by great art direction and great photography. No expense should be spared.

This proviso was certainly maintained for the making of "iguana", which was directed by Hugh "Chariots of Fire" Hudson. For some years afterwards, it held its place in the Guinness Book of Records as the most expensive commercial ever made and pioneered the trend towards ads with high production values.

"It enraged some people, but excited most people," Waldie recalls. "But it was certainly noticed."


In the early 80s, British Airways was in a tailspin. It was losing £300 million a year and its image and reputation were in the doldrums. Moreover, the culling of 26,000 jobs had sent staff morale plummeting.

Sir John King, the chairman appointed by Margaret Thatcher to guide the near-bankrupt national flag carrier out of state ownership and into private hands, needed advertising that would not only restore City confidence and fire up staff, but put bums on seats. With "Manhattan" he got it.

The Saatchi & Saatchi ad, the first of its kind to encapsulate such diverse requirements, was based on a simple premise: that the number of people carried across the Atlantic each year by BA was greater than the population of Manhattan.

The upshot was a Spielberg-inspired ad with the kind of "wow!" factor that had never been seen before.

Bill Muirhead, then the Saatchis account man on BA, recalls how the creatives Rita Dempsey and Phil Mason had to craft the ad out of the most unpromising material.

"BA's situation was so bad that we couldn't show planes or staff," he says. "But I had unearthed this fact about the number of people BA carried across the Atlantic. We just had to dramatise this in an interesting and memorable way."

Muirhead confesses he had misgivings about the idea of the island of Manhattan being guided towards Heathrow by air traffic controllers. "I was terrified it would be boring," he admits. "But when I saw the rushes, the hairs of the back of my neck stood up."

He adds: "The commercial opened a new chapter for BA. It even made the people who saw it proud to be British. And all of it based on a simple fact. When I see what Honda does now, I remember what BA did then."

1984 - APPLE, OGILVY & MATHER, 1984

Fans of American football watching the 18th Superbowl in 1984 were treated to 45 seconds of advertising excess at half-time, courtesy of Apple and Ogilvy & Mather.

Directed by Ridley Scott, "1984" left the majority of viewers scratching their heads and the majority of adland wondering how O&M had managed to persuade its Apple client to part with a seven-figure sum for an ad that would play only once.

Drawing heavily on George Orwell's novel and widely held as a critique of IBM and its faceless corporate culture, the ad proved that impact can be more effective than frequency.

Up to that point, the majority of TV advertising had advocated the latter strategy - bombard the audience enough and the message would eventually sink in. Apple's "1984" changed all that by creating a buzz about the ad itself - like the legendary Sex Pistols gig at the 100 Club in London, far more people claimed to have seen it than actually did.

Scott says: "I was impressed by their intent to never show the product in a conventional manner. It would simply be a rolling caption at the end followed by the logo. My job was to dream up the 1984 universe of 'Orwellian' oppression. The budget was not high, contrary to gossip, but I liked the idea, so I figured it would turn out well. I felt it was groundbreaking in that the creatives were bold enough to say very little about this new product other than to 'engage' and 'intrigue'."


Before Nick Kamen stripped to his underpants to the strains of Marvin Gaye's I Heard it Through the Grapevine, advertising wasn't hugely imaginative in its use of music.

Music was generally in the form of a jingle; on the rare occasions that an original tune was used, it tended to be a bowdlerised version - such as the Beach Boys' California Girls re-recorded as Caledonian Girls for a cringeworthy airline ad.

Bartle Bogle Hegarty's "launderette" spot for Levi's 501s used music authentically and gave it equal star billing with Kamen and his jeans. It revived the careers of many forgotten artists and turned record labels on to a hugely lucrative source of revenue in the process.

The ad's creator, John Hegarty, was surprised by the success of the ad and the number of imitations it had spawned.

"I didn't think it would do what it did, but then, you don't know when you're doing it," he says.

He argues that "launderette" demonstrated that advertising that evoked a feeling rather than attempted to convey a big idea could be successful. The use of the music was a huge part of that.

And 501s flew off shelves, as did pairs of men's boxer shorts. "In the original script, we had him in a pair of Y-fronts. The BACC said we couldn't show that, but that it would be OK if he wore boxer shorts. Sales of boxers rocketed after the ad aired," Hegarty recalls.


Back in 2000, the idea that people would choose to watch short, ad-funded films on their desktop computers was a brave one. Not because the internet lacked potential viewers - they were flocking to it in their droves - but because marketers were some way behind the curve in knowing how to use the technology effectively.

It was with considerable panache, though, that Fallon embraced the medium to create the now legendary "the hire" campaign. Working with A-list talent (Madonna, James Brown, Clive Owen) and directors (Ang Lee, Tony Scott, Guy Ritchie), the films screamed big budget. They couldn't have been further away from traditional car advertising if they'd tried.

The BMW-funded short films demonstrated categorically that, if used properly, the internet was a viable alternative to TV advertising and that if the content is good enough, viewers will seek it out, whether it's funded by an advertiser or not.

"People said we were crazy and that no-one would watch films, by BMW or any other marketer, on a computer," the Fallon president, Pat Fallon, says. "After two seasons, we'd reached more than 50 million film views."

At the point when BMW retired the site in 2005, that figure had risen to 93 million views, with no additional media investment. And internet-only films campaigns were a regular feature of many a marketing strategy.


TBWA's "hello boys" for Wonderbra showed agencies the level of exposure they could achieve if the press latched on to a campaign.

Eva Herzigova's cleavage generated acres of copy, although it wasn't until Guinness spoofed the ad, running it alongside a shot of Billy Connolly drinking a can of alcohol-free Kaliber lager under the line "hello girls", that the nationals really picked up on the story, spinning tales of drivers crashing their cars after being distracted by the model.

According to Trevor Beattie, a founding partner of Beattie McGuinness Bungay and the creative director at TBWA at the time, this PR coverage was a happy accident, although one he emulated with fcuk a few years later. The trick has been much copied since: from the inflammatory "beaver Espana" ad for Club 18-30 by Saatchis to Leith London's vegetarian-baiting poster with a picture of a cow and the line: "When I'm a burger, I wanted to be washed down with Irn-Bru."

"The PR wasn't an explicit intent when we created the ad, although by the time we did the second wave, we were fundamentally aware of it," Beattie says. He adds, though, that the ad's success owes as much to clever media planning as it does to Herzigova's curves: "It was the first time lingerie had run outdoor. It was always in women's mags before that. We didn't think the ads were going to knock houses down, but because they ran on billboards, the context changed."