Topcat, Skeletor and Mr Benn? It's time advertising stopped stealing from culture
A view from David Billing

Topcat, Skeletor and Mr Benn? It's time advertising stopped stealing from culture

Are brands hiding behind these beloved cultural creations, asks Above & Beyond's executive creative director.

A lot has been written about how hard it is for brands to reach audiences, whether it’s "Adblockalypse", the internet and what’s it done to "top down" communications, the democratisation of content creation, or Gen-Z fleeing linear programming in their millions to do something better with their time instead.

While 75% of internet traffic is video-based, you can bet that most of that is not ads being gleefully consumed.

So if you’re a brand, getting to the audience in the first place is hard. And, presuming you can get in front of them, how the hell do you start entertaining them?

Lots of brands have decided that this is best achieved by hiding behind their audience’s favourite childhood TV characters. Just recently we’ve had Halifax with Scooby Doo, The Flintstones, and Top Cat. Pizza Hut with Rainbow. with He-Man and Skeletor. Even a new insurance brand has got in on the act with the slightly niche and increasingly forgotten (but lovely) TV character Mr Benn.

But is this appropriation of 70s and 80s kids TV culture really the best way to reach a Gen X and Millennial audience? We know that brands can, sometimes, successfully create culture via advertising. Think back to the Smash robots of the 70s, Tango slappers of the 90s, Budweiser Whasssuppers of the early 2000s and, moving forward, to drumming gorillas for Cadburys, meerkat toys, Red Bull stratosphere jumps and John Lewis Christmas ads – these things became cultural phenomena in their own right, they became meme-able themselves. 

We also know that brands can successfully entertain their audiences by contributing to audience culture. We see this with Red Bull’s tireless, committed efforts in electronic music and extreme sports. We see it with Kit Kat and its Sidemen collaboration, Nike and running, Stella Artois and filmmaking, and Dr Martens and local music.

But this kids programme stuff is different. This is appropriating culture. It’s just taking much loved cultural properties, TV characters from the 70s and 80s, and turning them into the face or voice of your brand. At worst it’s theft, at best it’s turning up at a fancy dress party dressed as a ninja turtle.

So the brands in question have done the cursory work of mapping their target audience against the sort of TV programmes they’d have been into as kids. OK. But then what? We just show the characters from those programmes shouting brand messages at us in a TV ad?

Rather than Bungle telling us that doughy 80s style pizza is a sadly forgotten wonder (much like Rainbow), couldn’t Pizza Hut have done something more inventive with the show? Reuniting Geoffrey with Rod, Jane and Freddie, Bungle, Zippy, George and the gang for a 12-hour Facebook Live-streamed reunion show? I digress but, the fact is, this is the difference between contributing to a culture or just stealing from it.

The deeper worry is whether brands are hiding behind these beloved cultural creations. Whether they’ve run out of things to say, or forgotten how to be useful, or are too scared to contribute to a more serious debate.

Have brands lost the ability to relate to adults with adult concerns? Take Halifax and its cast of Hanna-Barbera stooges. Its communications needn’t be po-faced, but its audience is struggling with the price of housing, stagnating wages and a looming Brexit; they’re grown ups with grown up problems. Problems that Top Cat could never experience, partly because he’s a cat, but mostly because he’s fictional. 

The flip might be that we, the audience, just can’t handle the truth. Maybe the world has become so scary with a rolling news agenda and plotlines from the Book of Revelation that all that we demand in response is comfort. Maybe the infantilisation of culture has become so advanced that all a brand can do is speak to our inner seven-year-old (Michael Bywater’s book Big Babies is great on this).

Just maybe the distraction and instant gratification caused by a couple of decades of the internet has meant that we can only cope with kids’ stuff. Like the children we used to be, we don’t have the attention spans or the patience for adult conversation. We want to flit, to snack, to hop between comforting images and funny nostalgic stuff, and these ads do just that.

Halifax and Pizza Hut. Banking and fat-saturated chain pizza. Both pretty toxic categories to a conscientious adult. Maybe brands and audiences aren't that different. Maybe neither of us has the stomach for anything more chewy.

David Billing is executive creative director at Above & Beyond