Clever clogs can’t cover feet of clay

Sometimes clever advertising can get you into trouble you didn’t bargain for. Dave Bedford, record-breaking Seventies distance runner, took a dim view of The Number’s cavalier treatment of his image in its famous ‘118 118’ runners campaign and decided to do something about it: complain bitterly.

The wrangle has now reached farcical proportions. The advertiser’s suggestion that the cloned Zapata-moustached figures were in some way generic or – according to its ad agency WCRS – based on the more obscure Steve Prefontaine, always seemed a shade unconvincing. So it’s no surprise to discover that The Number’s defence cut little ice with Ofcom, which has found in favour of Bedford and vindicated his claim that the TV ads did indeed ‘steal’ and caricature his image.

Yet Ofcom is surely right not to go further and ban the ads. Apart from the frivolous point that we would be denied one of the few advertising highlights of a largely barren year, the campaign has done no real harm to Bedford’s reputation, which is safely established in sporting history. In any case, Bedford seems to have been uncharacteristically slow off the blocks in launching the complaint. Slow enough to allow The Number to pour millions of pounds into building up the new brand.

Bedford may yet have the last laugh, however. He has launched a separate claim for damages against The Number, and the Ofcom finding could well strengthen his court case.

But that’s not the worst of clever advertising. In this case, the campaign has done its job in establishing outstanding awareness. If The Number goes on to fail, it will be for reasons other than advertising: service or pricing issues, for instance.

A sadder, more insidious case is that of Holsten Pils. Last week, a potential buyer for the once-famous, now-battered brand emerged in the form of Carlsberg. Only a little earlier – and even more symbolically – TBWA/London, the agency which in one form or another had been midwife to Holsten’s classic ad campaigns of the past 20 years, cut itself adrift from the account. There are few brands that consistently produce first-class campaigns, but Holsten in its heyday was certainly one of them. From Donald Pleasence, through to Griff Rhys Jones, Denis Leary, Jeff Goldblum and Ray Winstone, Holsten left an eccentric but indelible imprint on the ad landscape.

This was surely part of the brand’s future problem. Advertising helped Holsten Pils to create and build the premium packaged lager market, yet its success may have blinded the advertiser to the need for change. As former Holsten marketing director Carol Fisher puts it: ‘The campaigns became so famous that people started to consume the ads rather than the product itself.’ In 1992, falling sales prompted belated attempts to rejuvenate the brand by introducing a lighter, less alcoholic formulation in keeping with changing tastes. But it was already too late: the brand had lost out to the likes of Budweiser, Beck’s and Stella Artois.

Stella itself should beware. The Jean de Florette-based advertising campaign has shown an enviable creative longevity, which has rightly won it many accolades. Even so, is it not beginning to look just the teensiest bit tired?

Feature, page 32

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