Andy Nairn: the ten luckiest moments in advertising history

Lucky Generals co-founder Andy Nairn has just launched a new book called Go Luck Yourself: 40 ways to stack the odds in your brand’s favour. Here, he picks out 10 of the luckiest moments in advertising history and explains the lessons behind them.

KFC – It’s finger lickin’ good

This line has been brilliantly repurposed by Mother recently, to make it Covid-compliant. But it began life by accident, in the 1950s. A viewer had complained about someone licking their fingers in the background of a commercial. So the fast food firm turned it into a positive. It’s a great example of how quick thinking can change an unlucky narrative for the better.

Absolut – Bottle

TBWA’s Geoff Hayes came up with the longest-running print campaign in history – in his bathtub. His eureka moment came in response to a very restrictive brief that demanded a focus on the bottle. The 1500 executions that followed show that limitations can be lucky.

Audi – Vorsprung durch Technik

John Hegarty stumbled on the now-famous slogan, during a factory trip to Ingolstadt. Lesser mortals would have walked past the faded poster, in a foreign language, but the BBH chief dared to transplant it to the UK. Sometimes the writing can literally be on the wall – but you’ve got to have a prepared mind to spot it.

Apple – 1984

Perhaps the most famous ad of all time. And yet it almost didn’t run. Almost everyone on Apple’s Board hated it and even enquired about pulling it, the day before it aired. It took a passionate presentation by the team from Chiat (including a bravura performance from my old boss MT Rainey) and the personal support of Steve Jobs, to win the day. Powerful proof that great ideas need determined sponsors.

Tango – Slap

The infamous orange man started off as some mucking about between Trevor Robinson and his partner Al Young. The HHCL duo filmed themselves slapping each other in a public park and found it hilarious. Others might have stopped there and moved onto something more grown up, but luckily the pair saw its anarchic potential as a metaphor for taste intensity. As David Ogilvy once said: “The best ideas come as jokes”.

Guinness – Surfer

AMV’s 1999 epic was partly inspired by an 1893 painting by Walter Crane, called “Neptune’s Horses”. It just goes to show that visiting an art gallery can sometimes be more useful than another hour at your desk.

Marmite – You either love it or hate it

Sometimes advertising history can turn on something as trivial as a team’s feelings for yeasty spreads. In this case, Richard Flintham loved Marmite while Andy McLeod hated it. It’s a tiny reminder of a much bigger truth that creative serendipity thrives on diversity and personal interaction.

Cadbury – Gorilla

Fallon’s Juan Cabral came up with this idea while on the shoot for another commercial. It was only a coincidence that it fitted so well with a Cadbury’s brief that later came in. Traditionalists might say that this makes it guilty of post-rationalisation – but given its incredible success maybe we should be more encouraging of such lucky accidents?

Sport England – This girl can

This landmark campaign from 2015 is another great example of turning a negative into a positive. It was driven by a brilliant insight: that women are put off exercising by a fear of judgement. This deep-rooted anxiety was channelled into an inspirational campaign by FCB, typified by lines such as “Sweating like a pig, feeling like a fox.” And then Kim Gehrig added her very own sprinkle of magic to the story. Sometimes, a big barrier can also be a lucky break.

Burger King – Flame-grilled

Finally, the fact that “more Burger Kings have burned down since 1954 than any other fast-food restaurant” does not immediately scream “opportunity”. But David Miami scorched a path through the awards in 2017 by using this information to emphasise the chain’s authentic flame-grilling. Proof that even the worst misfortune can be turned into good fortune.

Go Luck Yourself by Andy Nairn is published by Harriman House. He will be donating all his royalties to Commercial Break, a social enterprise that helps working class youths get a lucky break into the media industry.

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