UK adland’s favourite Mr Fix-it Al Cluer dies

I see from the FT that Al Cluer, who made a career out of persuading previously snooty showbiz celebrities to appear in ads has died at 72.

Cluer (pictured centre left with director Hugh Hudson and photographer Terry O’Neill) is credited with persuading all sorts of celebs to risk their reputations before adland’s cameras, from Burt Lancaster and Dudley Moore in the 1980s to, it seems, Rowan Atkinson for Barclaycard and Jamie Oliver for Sainsbury’s (although I can’t imagine the latter needed that much persuading). Phil Davison’s FT piece has lots of interesting details.

Actors and the like have appeared in ads through the ages of course. Ronald Reagan is maybe the most famous, appearing in Chesterfield cigarette ads in the 1940s and 50s when he was a B-movie actor as opposed to a presidential candidate.

But then it fell out of fashion somewhat, stars and their advisers being reluctant to associate with brands as the job often meant, as with Chesterfield, plugging something that wasn’t necessarily for the good of the world or your image.

If you really wanted the money, you signed up for some tobacco or booze ads for Japan; with a strict clause in your contract that they weren’t to be shown anywhere else. James Bond actors Sean Connery and Roger Moore did this. I think Sir Laurence Olivier appeared for Polaroid, but not in the UK.

What changed matters was the wave of creative British agencies which began with Collett Dickenson Pearce and encompassed Boase Massimi Pollitt (now DDB London) and Lowe Howard-Spink among others. These agencies discovered the delights of sending up celebrities and Cluer played his rather important role. Memories fade, alas, but Minder star George Cole appeared for CDP in an ad for Benson & Hedges (although not smoking one), the great Muhammad Ali appeared in a milk ad for BMP and Lowe signed up Moore and then Prunella Scales and Jane Horrocks for Tesco.

One reason for this was that creatives and commercials directors would far sooner have been making films or TV dramas than ads and would go to any lengths to find ways of working with real live stars. But the ads worked and didn’t do the performers any harm as the scripts were mostly funny and the fashion of the time, as instanced in the phenomenally successful Morecambe & Wise Christmas shows, was for British stars to send themselves up. And, of course, their bank balances improved.

I have no idea how many of these deals Cluer brokered but Frank Lowe (of both CDP and Lowe Howard-Spink) was a chum so it was probably most.

I was always rather dismissive of Cluer’s efforts. The late Gail Amber, long-serving Campaign diarist, was always trying to persuade us to do a big piece on him but we cynics scoffed. We thought Gail was just indulging her liking for the showbiz world. She had met Cary Grant a few times in his role as ‘brand ambassador’ for Brut aftershave maker Faberge – I doubt that Cary wore the stuff, by the way. Actually Cluer probably arranged for Henry Cooper and Kevin Keegan to plug “the Great Smell of Brut.”

But we were wrong. The guy clearly did have a big impact in the days when commercials actually featured people – albeit celebrities burnishing their image.

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About Stephen Foster

Stephen is a former editor of Marketing Week and London Evening Standard advertising columnist. He wrote City Republic for Brand Republic and is a partner in communications consultancy The Editorial Partnership.