TV ads at 60: How they’ve changed and the most effective ads ever

TV at 60


As it reaches its 60th birthday, UK TV advertising has evolved from being information-heavy to prioritising clever creative that triggers emotion and uses humour to entertain viewers.

Targeted content that can transfer across different screens and marketing channels is also rising up the agenda, thanks to changing consumption habits and new technology for media buying. So is the creative formula – and the motivation – for making TV ads fundamentally different from the 1950s?

TV is the ‘tip of the iceberg’

Investment in TV continues to grow. The latest report from the Advertising Association and Warc recorded the highest ever Q1 spend on TV spot advertising, up by 11.5% to £1.2bn. The Rugby World Cup is expected to boost Q3 investment and the 2015 full-year total for all TV spend – including both spot ads and TV on demand – is forecast to beat 2014’s £4.9bn record by 6.9%. Full-year growth in spot ads alone is predicted to be 6.4%.

But Jemma Jones, manager of marketing communications at Honda Europe, believes brands must now use TV as a springboard to go beyond the product, and extend their ideas into other areas. “It plays to our strengths, the diversity of the brand and the creative opportunity that it opens up,” she says.

“We try to go beyond the one-directional approach that a lot of our competitors adopt. That means Honda has many touch points beyond products – it’s about a longer-term emotional link and relationship with the consumer. TV is critical for delivering that.”

Find out more: Mark Ritson: Happy birthday TV advertising – still the most effective tool in a marketer’s arsenal

Where TV ads from decades ago differ from today’s marketing communications is the various points at which consumers can come into contact with a brand, particularly online. Honda says when a brand campaign is live on TV it sees a 400% uplift in visitors to its website, so while the TV element is key the brand always has a digital component too.

To accompany a recent spot for the Honda CR-V model the brand created what it claims is the first never-ending YouTube ad, called ‘The Endless Road’ (above), which replicates the weather and time of day of the viewer using location data .

Patrick Bousquet-Chavanne, executive director of marketing and international at Marks & Spencer, says similarly that TV advertising is now “the tip of the iceberg”. It acts as a point of departure for additional content and ideas executed in other marketing channels.

As an example, the brand created several different formats for its autumn fashion campaign to work cross multiple channels (see ‘Paddy Power, M&S and McVitie’s on the role of TV advertising‘).

For Microsoft, TV is the anchor for the brand’s main creative ideas, but campaigns are adapted locally from there. This is because it is known for different things in different regions: while it is a product and service-based technology company in the US and UK, in Africa it is seen more as an infrastructure company, working on school and government IT networks.

“Essentially, we’re not starting our story in the same place in every country in the world,” says Philippa Snare, chief marketing officer at Microsoft UK (see Q&A here). “What TV enables us to do is get everyone on the same page initially before we then start thinking about bespoke content for each country’s individual needs.”

Emotion and affinity over product

Microsoft returned to the TV screen this summer with an ad to launch its updated operating system Windows 10 that revealed another trend in today’s creative formula – a shift from product-heavy to emotive advertising.

McVitie’s did the same with its ‘Sweeet’ campaign, featuring assorted animals emerging from its biscuit packets. “Biscuits are ultimately trivial, but people have an emotional connection to them – and campaign serves to bring to life the emotional feeling you get when you eat a biscuit,” says brand director Kerry Owens.

“What is important in a TV creative depends on what you are trying to convey about your brand and the sort of connection you wish to build with your target audience.”

A shift has taken place over the years from telling viewers about a product to driving affinity for a brand through emotion, according to Leo Burnett executive creative director Justin Tindall.

Leo Burnett has worked with McDonald’s in the UK for over 20 years and believes that the brand is an example of this shift. Tindall says in 2009 the agency started creating advertising that was purely made to drive affinity for the brand, starting with its ‘Just passing by’ creative, claiming it was the first ad that was “an articulation of the role the brand had in people’s lives”.

“There is a growing move towards emotive advertising that is not necessarily offer-, product- or promotion-focused but more about driving a positive relationship with the viewer and the brand,” says Tindall. “That is because we have to. The world has changed and the purchase funnel that advertising was driven towards is irrelevant – the consumer holds the power now.”

This is a consequence of the globalisation of television and advertising, claims Nick Gill, executive creative director at Bartle Bogle Hegarty (BBH), who says that prompting emotional responses has a universal effect. Arguably the agency’s famous ‘Launderette’ ad for Levi’s 501 jeans starring Nick Kamen in 1985 was ahead of the trend.

Gill says: “The two biggest changes I have seen [in TV advertising] are the globalisation of television and our industry and the explosion of media and technology, which have completely changed the face of our industry and made it a more interesting world. Film is now part of a bigger brand story.”

He adds: “Brands have tapped into very simple human emotions. The kinds of things that motivate us all: individuality, making the most of every day, love, death, fear, laughter.”

Perhaps the most famous proof of Gill’s point it Cadbury’s popular ‘Gorilla’ spot made by agency Fallon. The link between a gorilla drumming to a Phil Collins song and Dairy Milk chocolate is purely emotional and not in the least bit rational.

Lindsey Clay, chief executive officer at Thinkbox, says: “We know from different studies that the most effective campaigns are the ones that are highly emotional, the objective is about driving emotion.”

However, Clay argues that the rise of internet technology and the possibilities of extending stories beyond the 30-second TV ad has helped TV’s shift towards driving brand affinity rather than product because it’s “taken a lot of the pressure off TV for delivering highly rational call-to-action information”.

Storytelling, therefore “has got more complicated but TV remains the staple for how that is communicated”, according to Rachel Bristow director of partnerships at Sky Media, who warns that “the importance of getting the creative message right and the emotional connection has stood the test of time, and if you miss it you don’t end up with a successful campaign”.

Event TV and ‘linear’ viewing

The increasing use of tablets, smartphones and social media during ‘linear’ viewing of TV programmes as they are broadcast has created ‘second screening’, where viewers watch TV but also tweet, for example. Brands are capitalising on their TV ad spend by creating apps to play along with what’s on the screen, or hashtags to spark conversation on social media to reap the benefits of that engaged audience.

Tindall at Leo Burnett also believes that linear viewing of ‘event’ TV such as The Great British Bake Off, The X Factor or Game of Thrones is more important than ever, as more brands and advertisers book “roadblock three-minute ads” filling an entire commercial break. “The hope is that the quality of the content is going to be so high that the people talking about those programmes will also talk about the advertising,” he says.

The main way people watch programmes continues to be at the time of broadcast. However, according to the latest communications market report released by Ofcom last month, time spent viewing traditional linear TV has fallen from 3 hours 45 minutes per person per day in 2010 to 3 hours 13 minutes in 2014. Viewing of programmes previously recorded on devices or through catch-up services has grown over the same period from 17 minutes a day to 27 minutes a day.

Last month Trainline rebranded itself from and launched new its branding with a TV spot called ‘I am train’ that featured during Saturday night’s X Factor. For Simon Darling, commercial director at Trainline, the key is to use a range of different formats, not just the 30-second ad in event TV.

He says: “We can see when we put out 10-second ads rather than four-minute ads, they do a slightly different job. The short ones do a good job of driving downloads and ticket sales there and then, whether it’s during the day or in the evening; [longer advertising during] event-driven TV like X Factor is really is good for the emotion.”

When creating TV content today brands are required to think about how it plays out across different media and channels, ensuring a range of formats are available. Clay at Thinkbox believes this has created a more “demanding environment” for advertisers just to keep up with the basics of what is possible, but warns that “it’s TV-and, not TV-or” in the industry now.

Gill at BBH agrees with the sentiment: “Clients are waking up to the possibilities afforded by the new world. People understand that you can’t put something out there and leave it alone; there are so many more ways you can enrich a brand story other than a standalone film.”

It is difficult, admits Trainline’s Darling, and “will remain difficult”, but the key is a strong core idea that works across channels. He adds: “If you get that core idea right it makes life a lot easier and you don’t have to work that hard to make it work everywhere.”

For the ‘I am train’ campaign Darling says Trainline had a lot of ideas during the four-month pitch process but that particular idea stood out because it works through all media.

Content for a multichannel world

As well as numerous channels for viewing, there are many new tools available for TV media buying now. Using technology to track audience viewing habits and targeting content with that data is something the likes of Channel 4 and Sky are well versed in, thanks to their All 4 and AdSmart platforms, respectively.

Bristow at Sky Media argues that use of targeting sees brands that have not traditionally been on TV come onto the channel, particularly regional brands. “Technology is allowing more brands [to create TV ads] and more executions of TV because with targeting you can have specific messages,” she says.

However Bristow claims that although brands are learning day-by-day about different channels and how to use the technology along side branding campaigns, it “takes a while for agencies to incorporate new thinking”.

Being able to see the effectiveness of TV is an area that Darling at Trainline believes will be a priority: “We are buying TV like we are buying digital media now,” he says. “We are not laying down a plan for two months and leaving it. We watch how each spot does and change it according to the 12-minute window after the ad is aired to see if it drives downloads or sales.”

It’s clear that while the fundamental idea of driving sales and brand awareness through TV advertising hasn’t changed dramatically since 1955, the ways and means of doing so has.

TV advertising has not only adapted to the way people behave, but has also grown up. Ad creative now needs to be compelling across all media channels in a world where consumers are taking more control over their viewing experience than ever.

The top 10 most effective TV ads of all time

TV ads are getting better. According to a study of more than 1,000 consumers by creative agency JWT, 70% of consumers think advertising is more creative than in the past, while 56% find it more entertaining, 58% funnier and 63% higher quality.

But what are the best TV campaigns of all time? Not the most voted for or the most viewed, but the ones that were most effective at generating ROI. Here is the IPA’s list of the top 10, in alphabetical order.

Barclaycard: Put it away, Bough

The series of spots featuring Rowan Atkinson’s bungling secret agent helped the card brand reverse a decline in market share and grow profits in a competitive sector. IPA Gold Effectiveness Award Winner 1996.

BT –  It’s Good to Talk

Fronted by Bob Hoskins, this campaign changed perceptions about the cost of calls and encouraged people to stay on the phone for longer. IPA Effectiveness Awards Grand Prix Winner 1996.

Foster’s – Good Call

With the biggest demonstrated Return on Investment of any beer campaign in the IPA’s history, this series of humorous ads helped the lager brand reclaim market leadership. IPA Effectiveness Awards Grand Prix Winner 2014.

Halifax – Staff as Stars campaign

A daring decision to create ads around the former building society’s staff helped the brand clearly differentiate itself in a competitive sector, leading to a 150% jump in sales and 43% rise in profit per current account customer in the first year. IPA Effectiveness Awards Gold Winner 2002.

Hovis – As good today as it has ever been

An epic 122 second spot celebrated the bread brand’s heritage, delivering a wave of PR coverage and contributing to a 14% sales increase. IPA Effectiveness Awards Grand Prix Winner 2010.

John Lewis Christmas – The Long Wait

Through a string of highly emotive ads culminating in a highly successful Christmas 2010 campaign, the department store group generated incremental sales estimated at more than £1bn. IPA Effectiveness Awards Grand Prix Winner 2012.

Milk Marketing Board – Wake up to Milk

One of the most famous ads of its day, this animated sequence triggered a reverse in the declining share of milkmen and increased orders from existing customers. IPA Effectiveness Awards Grand Prix Winner 1992.

PG Tips Chimps – various 1955 -1990

For over 35 years, the tea brand relied on its Chimp brand characters. The brand’s dominant position was initially achieved because of the interest in the brand triggered by the chimps, with later spots communicating that the brand offered added value – even though its price was always higher than that of its competitors. IPA Effectiveness Awards Grand Prix Winner 1990.

Tesco – Every little helps

Between 1995 and 1999, Tesco’s advertising helped the retailer consolidate its lead, with its lead character, ‘Dotty’ (played by Prunella Scales), sharpening the brand’s appeal with a  well-received message about value for money. IPA Effectiveness Awards Grand Prix Winner 2000.

Department for Transport, Drink Drive – various 1979 – 2009

In a 30-year period from 1979-2009, hard-hitting TV ads demonstrably changed attitudes and behaviour towards drink driving. IPA Effectiveness Awards Gold Winner 2012.

The top 10 is based on campaigns that won either Gold or a Grand Prix in the IPA Effectiveness Awards since they began in 1980. The only criteria: the campaigns had to be TV led, generate a measurable and significant impact and deliver demonstrable results over at least a year.

Paddy Power, M&S and McVitie’s on the role of TV advertising

This is a competitive market and our competition spends [a lot] in TV. Betting is around live sporting events on TV, [so we] stimulate by advertising at the right time and occasion when people can make a bet.

[The] brand does play on wit and humour and generally [you] need a dynamic medium to do that. But having said that my personal belief, just weeks into the job, is that we should probably be a bit clever and smarter in other channels.

Gav Thompson, chief marketing officer at Paddy Power

TV is still an important tent pole but it is clearly no longer the primary one. [TV commercials are] the tip of the iceberg but the richness of the content and the versatility of the different formats is now coming from other areas too.

I think we are doing 37 different formats across multichannel for [the current] campaign, from social to YouTube, so you will see an expression of the same campaign but with more interactivity than the past.

Patrick Bousquet-Chavanne, executive director of marketing and international at M&S

When developing a TV creative it’s key that it not only links back to the overall brand idea, and is engaging and relevant, but it needs to work well across multiple channels. [There are] more channels now compared to a decade ago with the many developments in digital.

When you have a powerful brand proposition it gives you a strong platform from which to develop. Building the creative execution from that core idea allows you to essentially build a consistent brand message that is appropriate for the channel.

Kerry Owens, brand director at McVitie’s

TV ads at 60: A history

From subliminal messaging to organised flashmobs, UK television advertising has come a long way since the 1950s. Discover what highlights there have been along the way.

1955: The first ever TV ad is broadcast in the UK on ITV

TV advertising in the UK began on 22 September 1955. The first commercial was for Gibbs SR toothpaste. All it featured was a block of ice, a tube of toothpaste and a commentary about its “tingling fresh” qualities.

And not many people saw it. Only 100,00 homes in London and the south-east could receive the ad on special TV sets. Gibbs SR won the rights to go first in a lottery which pitched it against brands including Guinness and Surf.

1958: Subliminal advertising is banned in the UK

Hidden messages promoting products caused moral panic in the 1950s when an American researcher reported that he’d managed to increase popcorn sales by 18.1% by flashing “Eat popcorn” during a movie too fast for conscious perception.

Since then it has been banned in TV ads and across media, despite the researcher admitting he hadn’t done enough research to prove the link conclusively.

1961: The Committee of Advertising Practice is formed

The Advertising Association agreed it was important that ads were welcomed and trusted by consumers in broadcast media as well as non-broadcast. As a result, agencies, media and advertisers came together to form the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) and produce the first edition of the British Code of Advertising Practice.

1965: Smoking cigarettes in TV adverts is banned

In addition, adverts for tobacco and cigarette firms were banned in 1991.

1969: The first colour TV ad is broadcast

On 15 November 1969, the UK’s first TV colour ad made its debut. It was for Birds Eye to promote peas. Unilever – who at the time owned Birds Eye – was reported to have bought the slot for £23.

1969: The first car advert launches

Into the 1960s there was little car advertising due to an at-the-time secret agreement between the main manufacturers. However, Japanese car manufacturer Datsun sneakily broke the gentlemen’s agreement between Ford, Vauxhall, Chrysler and British Leyland not to advertise.

1982: Channel 4 goes live

The first programme to air in late November was Countdown hosted by Richard Whiteley and Carol Vorderman. The very first advert on Channel 4 was for Vauxhall cars.

Late 1980s: The first interactive ads tempt viewers

Car manufacturer Mazda was the first brand to explore interactive advertising. TV viewers were instructed to video record the ad and play it back frame by frame. On doing so they were able to take part in a competition to win a Mazda car.

1992: Sky Sports launches its first Premier League ad

To celebrate the launch of the Premier League Sky Sports ran an ad to promote the 1992/1993 season. The ad sees a fresh-looking Vinnie Jones and John Salako frolicking in the showers, accompanied by music from Simple Minds.

1995: “Holidays are coming”

They’re as much a part of Christmas as turkey and tinsel, but the Coca-Cola truck ads actually only came to TV screens in 1995. Created by agency W.B.Doner, they have featured almost every year since.

1997: Channel 5 launches

Channel 5 first hits the airwaves on 30 March 1997. The first advert screened was for Chanel’s No.5 perfume.

1999: Guinness scores a hit with ‘Surfer’

More than 15 years since it was first introduced, this campaign from Diageo to promote Guinness is still cited as one of the best ads ever. It needs little introduction.

2004: First TV advert banned

In November 2004, the ASA extended its remit to TV and radio advertising and within a couple of weeks was receiving complaints. The first ad it banned was by soft drink brand Tango. Part of its “You know when you’ve been Tango’ed” campaign, it featured a man who rolls down a hill inside a tube surrounded by oranges. The watchdog, which received four complaints, feared children could copy the commercial and harm themselves.

2007: Cadbury’s drumming gorilla makes waves

One of the most iconic ads to come out of the late noughties was Cadbury’s drumming gorilla. While the ad initially focuses on the gorilla’s face, it zooms out as the ape passionately starts playing the drums to the Phil Collins’ track “In The Air Tonight”.

2009: The dawn of flashmobs

T-Mobile was the first brand to use flashmobs as part of its advertising strategy. Taking place at Liverpool Street station, this mobile phone ad grabbed national attention as 400 commuters appeared to spontaneously start to dance. Footage of the event was aired the next day as a TV ad and uploaded to YouTube, and sparked a trend for organised flashmobs around the country.

2009: Meerkats invade

It wasn’t just flashmobs we were introduced to in 2009, this was the year Compare the Market brought us Compare the Meerkat.

2010: The most frequently song used in adverts is revealed

According to PRS for Music, Light & Day by The Polyphonic Spree is the most used song in UK TV advertising.

2011: John Lewis cements itself as a Christmas ad mogul

The annual unveiling of the John Lewis Christmas advert could almost be described as a cultural event. But the first ad to really show off John Lewis’ seasonal capabilities was back in 2011. “The Long Wait” sees a young boy impatiently waiting for Christmas to come, so he can give a surprise gift to his parents.

2014: Smoking is back on TV

50 years after cigarettes ads were banned smoking was back on our screens with e-cigarette brand KiK Electronic Cigarettes. However, it wasn’t allowed to promote tobacco or target non-smokers or young people.

2014: Sky Adsmart launches in linear TV

Sky brought its tailored advertising service, which serves ad based on customer data, to linear TV for the first time. Brands that used the service on launch included Tesco, RBS and Audi.

2014: ITV recreates ads using Lego

To promote The Lego Movie, ITV devoted a whole ad break to iconic ads such as BT Flatmates and Premier Inn reimagined using lego.

2015: TV advertising to hit record highs

Despite a decline in linear TV viewing and more competition for ad budgets from mobile, social media and digital, investment in TV advertising continues to grow. It reached a record high of £4.91bn last year – the fifth year in a row it has beaten the record – and is expected to increase again in 2015.



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