Dunlop – Tested for the Unexpected
I still have my school folder from 1993, covered in stills from this ad. I wasn’t planning a career in advertising (teachers had concluded that the ideal job for me was writing headlines for The Sun), but I responded instinctively to its wonderful weirdness.
In those prehistoric, pre-internet days, when the most subversive thing a country bumpkin ultra-spod like me could find was Channel 4’s Eurotrash, this ad was like a missive from a strange planet. If you ran it today, it would still surprise, and in our video-saturated age, that’s a hell of an achievement.
But it’s more than magnificent eye candy. While it looks like everyone involved was hoovering Scarface quantities of Colombia’s finest, it’s actually a very hard-working piece of communication. The work takes the core benefits of good tyres – reliability, safety, grip, blah blah boring boring God am I still talking – and makes a brilliant leap: when do these benefits become most important? When you encounter something unexpected, of course.
It’s the most traditional, terribly well-behaved piece of advertising, all laced up in a rubber gimp suit, and soundtracked by The Velvet Underground (the bloody Velvet Underground! Now we make a big deal about Lily Allen covering Keane!). Subversive on every level, and so to be cherished.
Desert island rating: discovering a pirate’s hidden rum stash.
Channel 4 – Meet the Superhumans
I could miss this off the list in some pathetic attempt to make my selection “off the beaten track” and therefore cooler. But it would be a weaselly, lily-livered lie. This is such good work it makes me want to puke. And not a dainty, ladylike little retch – it’s a full-on, Mr Creosote situation of pure green envious bile.
It’s the Roger Federer of strategy – utterly effortless, casually cool, perfectly constructed. Just a wholesale reframe of society’s long-held, toxic beliefs about disability – you know, nothing hard. Not even breaking a sweat here. It’s so clever and so simple – a perfect mirror reversal – from being seen as “less than” to being presented as “more than”.
And the execution! If the storytelling, the ingenious construction and the sternum-vibrating thump of Public Enemy as the soundtrack doesn’t move you, you may want to check for a pulse.
Desert island rating: turning the bamboo shelter into a tiki bar
Andrex – Softer than ever
I love dogs, so if I’m grilling myself to a charred mahogany on a lonely beach, it may as well involve Labrador puppies. But let’s take a moment to celebrate the genius of this long-running campaign. The elegant sleight of hand to turn poo-wiping into fwuffy ickle puppy bundles is, I think, something we can all admire. It makes no sense whatsoever beyond a shared association of softness. But hey – who cares?
This is about creating mental availability for a brand (long before such phrases existed) and it does so brilliantly. I’ll save you the time of reading any neuroscience-based research – just put a dog in it. Voila: likability, recall, persuasion all off the scale. Andrex got there first.
We are a nation that cannot even mention bums without collapsing in schoolboy chortles/hiding in a corner (trust me, I work on Anusol), and they found a way to discuss the strength of toilet paper that made everyone totally fine with it, because PUPPIES.
Desert island rating: a tree full of easy-open coconuts.
Audi – Tell Charles I’m On My Way
‘What a wanker’. I can only speculate that that was written in the “what do we want people to feel” box on the brief for this one.
This ad is obviously from a time when TV commanded a greater share of attention. Nobody was agonizing over what constituted a “view” (a casual glance from a passing unicorn, it turns out), or the apparently urgent need to have the brand’s logo present from the first second. But I wonder – if you have real faith in the power of the story you are telling, regardless of platform, does a lot of that agonizing go away?
I love this ad for its complete confidence in the storytelling and its willingness to go with the negative. Imagine the research debrief on this one today: “99 per cent of this execution is negative; the execution features an unappealing character using the product; there are no clear messages conveyed about product benefits” (if you listen carefully you can hear the last screams of creativity dying somewhere around slide 87).
Audi had the guts to say “maybe we’re not for you” and dramatize this in a way that was completely plugged in to the zeitgeist.
Desert island rating: a feast of barbecued lobster
Levi’s – Swimmer
One of the lesser celebrated Levi’s ads, I think – not sure why. Maybe it’s not gritty enough. “The more you wash them, the better they get” – what a gorgeously simple product truth to dramatise. And it’s dramatised with humour, glamour and a real sense of contract with the audience: “we’re going to give you something you’ll love to watch”.
We’re so desperate to add weight and meaning to our role as ad hacks that we overcomplicate, levering in “purpose” where it patently doesn’t fit; insisting on “laddering up” to emotional benefits far removed from reality, and flogging briefs and research until somebody somewhere coughs up an ‘insight’. Because apparently we can’t start without an ‘insight’, yet in reality 99 per cent of them are just banal observations.
Here there’s none of that angsty nonsense. The Dinah Washington track is inspired, it’s drenched in fun, colour and glamour, and full of charming details and narrative moments that make it a pleasure to watch over and over.
It feels refreshingly balanced as well. The girl isn’t some hopeless wimp swept off her feet, it’s clear she’s delighted to escape/shock her stuffy family and indulge in some Olympic-level diving (as you do) with Mr Whoops-There-Goes-My-T-shirt (again).
Desert island rating: a triple-twist-dive into a bay of sunken treasure