The end of a golden age

It’s 50 years since the first commercial was broadcast on our TV screens and ITV will mark the anniversary by showing some classic ads from years gone by. The golden age of TV advertising may have passed, but a new age is dawning as media frag

It didn’t cause much of a stir at the time. At 8.12pm on September 22, 1955, British advertising changed forever. Gibbs SR toothpaste, now known as Mentadent SR, was the first brand to advertise on UK television as the Independent Television Association, the country’s first commercial TV channel, made its opening-night broadcast in the London area.

Few remember the launch – only 170,000 households in London owned TV sets capable of receiving the channel and just 100,000 homes tuned in. Most people were all ears, listening to the radio as Grace Archer was killed off in The Archers – the BBC’s attempt to upstage the launch of its new commercial rival. Yet this year, the ITA’s offspring, ITV, celebrates the 50th anniversary of commercial TV in Britain and is considering screening some of the greatest ads of all time.

Distinctively British advertising, as opposed to that which merely mimicked US ads, didn’t emerge until the late Sixties, and many believe its golden age was from 1975 to 1985. In those days, you could build a brand purely by advertising in the centre breaks of Coronation Street. Now, with dozens of TV channels and a plethora of alternative media, marketers see the classic 30-second ad as offering decreasing benefits and some predict that its role as the primary form of brand-building will gradually fizzle out.

Advertising in the Fifties was dominated by soap powders, food and cigarettes. One quaint technique was the “advertising magazine”, where a celebrity would stand in a shop and, with a thinly disguised storyline, promote various products. In the early years, advertising was about giving people a strong reason to buy a product.

The American model

As Gerry Moira, former Publicis creative director and now a consultant, says: “In the Sixties we were copying the Americans, just putting radio commercials on TV. There were men in white coats for Anadin, lots of authority figures and side-by-side comparisons. Back then, the industry believed advertising must demonstrate product superiority. It was the American model handed down by Madison Avenue.” Nevertheless, it was the decade that gave us Young & Rubicam’s memorable “Beanz Meanz Heinz” commercial.

The Sixties also saw the rise of Collett Dickenson Pearce (now cdp-travissully), the agency credited with creating a distinctively British style of advertising. The agency balked at the clumsy approach of packaged goods manufacturers and assembled the cream of London’s creative talent, with executives such as copywriter Charles Saatchi, and creatives including David Puttnam (later Lord), Alan Parker and Hugh Hudson who went on to become celebrated film directors. CDP developed creative work that reflected a more whimsical, conceptual style rather than mimicking US hard-sell tactics.

The agency created the “Happiness is a cigar called Hamlet” campaign in 1963, along with other classics such as the Hovis campaign and Heineken’s “refreshes the parts other beers cannot reach”. CDP also created the ad considered by many to be the greatest ever made in the UK: the 1979 Fiat Strada commercial. Directed by Hugh Hudson, it showed a robotized car plant in action, set to music from Rossini’s opera The Barber Of Seville with the end line: “The Strada. Handbuilt by Robots.”

Another agency that typified the “golden age” of British advertising was Boase Massimi Pollitt (now DDB London), the UK arm of New York adman Bill Bernbach’s Doyle Dane Bernbach. Under creative director John Webster, it developed the original John Smith’s commercials that launched the dubious careers of pub singers Chas and Dave. It also created classic campaigns for PG Tips (the chimps), Smash (the Martians) and Sugar Puffs (Honey Monster).

Forget the hard sell

These campaigns were highly effective and changed the way in which brands sold their products in the UK. They moved away from the idea of hammering home a “unique selling proposition”, developed by US adman Rosser Reeves at agency Ted Bates in the Forties, and instead injected a level of humour and humanity into advertising that found favour with Joe Public.

Work with some quirk

Michael Hockney, now chief executive of D&AD and a former creative director, says that when he started in advertising at J Walter Thompson in 1972, the best commercials took a brand property and turned it into a beautifully art-directed ad. He claims JWT were masters of this technique. He then joined Webster at BMP and says: “I got a much stronger sense that there were clients looking for advertising with a different sort of impact. Some quite extraordinary work was achieved.”

He says that marketing directors had a much greater degree of autonomy in those days and worked with substantial budgets. But the structure of ad agencies was different, with media bought in house rather than the task being farmed out to media shops, meaning there was greater ability to project an idea across every manifestation of a brand. “Much of the use of ideas and imaginative thinking came out of the interaction of the planner, creative, account man and the media people,” he says.

Another classic Eighties ad was Levi’s “Launderette” commercial, by Bartle Bogle Hegarty. It managed to transform a pair of old-fashioned denim trousers into a fashion icon and is often referred to as a great example of how advertising can create a premium brand purely by projecting a sexy image.

In the Nineties, advertising changed again, reflecting a new media landscape of fragmenting audiences and the increasing take-up of satellite and cable TV. By now, people had wised up to many advertising techniques and were becoming sceptical of lifestyle ads where dreams could be realised simply by buying a product. In response, ads became more knowing and quirky, with HHCL & Partners’ Tango executions giving birth to a new post-modern advertising style.

That’s entertainment

As retailers with own-label products sold through superstores began to take the wind out of the sails of branded packaged goods, so the manufacturers of these products started to recognise the need for ads with greater creative impact. In the Nineties, many more brands came to realise that before TV advertising could persuade, it had to entertain and many of the great campaigns began to look more like Hollywood film trailers.

The Guinness “Surfer” ad, created in 1999, was an example of the no-expense-spared production values that were considered necessary to create a blockbuster TV ad. Brands such as Nike and Adidas threw huge resources at wheeling out a collection of sponsored sports stars to promote their footwear. The decade witnessed the rise of celebrity endorsements that have come to dominate so much of modern advertising.

Into the new millennium, Mother is seen as heir to the work HHCL (HHCL/Red Cell), did in the early Nineties sending up the clichés of advertising. The ITV Digital campaign featuring a knitted monkey is considered by some to be one of the most memorable campaigns of the Nineties, even though the product the ad promoted collapsed.

According to Doner Cardwell Hawkins creative director Paul Cardwell, TV ads have reflected the nature of the programmes around them. In the Sixties, they imitated the costume dramas that were so big on the BBC and copied by ITV. In the Seventies and Eighties, they mimicked the situation comedies that were prevalent. Today, popular television is fixated on celebrity and making stars of ordinary people, a trend reflected in the Halifax ads starring one of the bank’s employees, Howard Brown.

Cardwell says: “Advertising has mirrored the programmes around it – the history of TV ads is nothing more than the history of British television. We used to be proud of it and think it was the best in the world. Nowadays, we are not so sure – other people seem to do it just as well as us.”

In 50 years, people may look back on the 30-second ad as a quaint and antiquated method of brand-building, the product of a time when a popular TV programme would clear the streets as people rushed home to watch it. Viewers in the future might smirk at a few ads from the “golden age”, then digitally download the blockbuster branded entertainment that is likely to dominate televisual advertising over the coming decades.

Will personal video kill the TV star?

Some of the world’s most famous brands are already moving away from the format that made them. As Coca-Cola chief marketing officer Chuck Fruit tells Marketing Week: ‘Television advertising is still important to us, but tends to play a less dominant role in our overall communications mix. Increasingly, we are creating more integrated plans that rely on a variety of media, such as out-of-home, online and experiential, to support the same core brand idea.’ Coca-Cola GB marketing director Julia Goldin adds that recent initiatives, such as the launch of mycokemusic.com and the relaunch of its Piccadilly sign ‘are examples of how we are tapping into the changing lifestyle and needs of our consumers’.

Others see TV as a testing ground for new methods of promotion. Unilever global media director Alan Rutherford says: ‘The role of TV is diminishing in its traditional form, but this doesn’t mean television won’t be of importance to consumers. At Unilever, we are looking at innovative ways of using programme production, key celebrities and creating new celebrities as brand endorsers.’

Unilever is looking at sponsorship, advertiser-funded television, interactive ads and ‘activation’ – building a brand idea in non-traditional channels as alternatives to the 30-second slot. But Rutherford warns: ‘It is going to make it more complex, it will mean advertisers have to organise themselves to be at their most efficient.’ This could mean an advertiser-funded programme being shown across ten markets instead of one to reap advantages of scale.

Media agency Starcom Motive predicts that by 2006, 12 per cent of UK homes will have PVRs, rising to 34 per cent by 2012. Research by the agency suggests that in homes with PVRs, the amount of television viewing rises by 17 per cent. People skip some 77 per cent of ads when watching recorded programmes, but this falls to 17 per cent for ‘live’ viewing.

The effect of this is that there is a 30 per cent loss of commercial impacts in homes with PVRs. Starcom Motive predicts that by 2010, overall there will be a ten per cent loss of commercial impacts, which have been static or growing over the past decade. If demand from advertisers goes up three or four per cent, the decline in impacts could lead to double-digit airtime inflation.

Pete Edwards, managing director of Starcom Motive, says much will depend on how broadcasters approach programming. The easiest way to combat the effect of PVRs on advertising is to ensure that there are more live programmes, since people are less likely to skip ads. So programmes such as ‘I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here’ and live sport will become more important to advertisers. ‘We may see film and drama investment go down,’ he says. But he adds: ‘People will still be watching ads, just not as many. They will need to be visually arresting. People do not think much of advertising, but there are some ads such as Lynx, Honda and Stella Artois where people make an effort to watch. It will encourage ad agencies to be even more creative.’

The Starcom research shows that when people skip ads with a PVR, they use sponsorship break bumpers to mark the beginning of the programme, so the agency predicts sponsorship will become more widely used and that the sector will experience price inflation.

Will Collin, a director of media planning agency Naked, says: ‘The increasing penetration of PVRs will lead to a new kind of advertising, more akin to what Chanel has done in its five-minute film – ads people choose to watch instead of the ones that interrupt programmes.

‘It is a fantastic opportunity for the ad industry, but it is also a massive threat if people sit on their hands and do nothing and watch the classic 30-second sell erode in effectiveness.’

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