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The golden age of TV ads

I don’t know whether it’s my age and outlook, but I can’t help but feel that TV ads running these days very rarely have humour that leads me to actually want to watch them.

A golden age

Once upon a time, TV ads (which at that time were limited to ITV) weren’t uniformly fun and memorable, but there was I am sure a greater number than there is now. Humorous ads that you watched because you actually wanted to see them have largely dried up. That’s not to say that there aren’t clever ones, artistic ones and thoughtful ones, but very few where you look up from your tablet/ smartphone and internally smile, knowing you have 30 – 90 seconds of unexpected entertainment. So, let’s take a walk down memory lane of some of the most iconic and funny ads (in my view).

A bygone era

Millennials look away now. The production qualities are awful and the ads have largely been taken from something called VHS.

Smash Martians

Remember the days of the Smash Martians, and their determination to explain the virtues of powdered mashed potato? The jokes they shared at the expense of humans and our stupidity in digging, peeling and boiling potatoes, with their cheeky mechanical laughter?
Dart Frog


In the 1980’s VolksWagen ran an iconic ad of “The man who lost it all”, but who still had a VW. The composition, music and his contented look as he drove away in all that he had left struck a chord. Powerful without being annoying. It didn’t tire.


As a kid, I used to look forward to the Hamlet ads, and however many times I saw them, they always brought a smile to my face. The jazz rendition of Bach’s Air on a G string, the striking of the match and the exhalation all combining to deliver the message that however bad things got, with a Hamlet cigar things would be OK.


Here’s a brand that is largely built on the premise that its beer is probably the best in the world. In the ad for “probably the best supermarket in the world” we see a shopping experience like no other, indulging men’s inner-most shopping desires. Power-tools, apology gifts, easy chairs and of course a giant walk-in fridge stocked with beer. Sat over the back of this we have Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes “Time of my life” – an up-beat and happy track from Dirty Dancing. It combines beautifully to create a sense of a place you’d like to be.

British Telecom

If something as dull as insurance can be hard to make fun, imagine trying to encourage people to make use of their phone! Well, that’s what BT did, with Maureen Lipman providing the built-in entertainment, and an “ology” was born!


In the mid 1980’s Castlemaine ran of series of ads that presented the Australian male as a strong, rough, occasionally sexist type, with a bit of lovable rogue about them. It lacked any music or sonic identity, focussing on the dry, dusty outback. The principle was simple, in that whatever happened, Castlemaine XXXX was the most important thing.

Fast forward

Fast forward (there’s a phrase from the era of VHS and Betamax). There are still undeniably well made, thought provoking, emotive and artistic ads, targeting both B2C and B2B audiences. There are also plenty of ads designed to entertain, though these generally seem to take the approach of contrived situations, people doing absurd things while repeatedly shouting the brand name at the screen in the hope that you’ll remember them next time you’re shopping. But why? Why ditch intelligent humour in favour of a race to the bottom? The reasons are simple:
Cut-through. Stand-out. Recall.
These are the standard answers. But why is this the case? Are we, the audience, at fault here? Have our attention spans become so diminished, and the impact of dual-screening so profound that to get our attention, in large part we have to dislike a brand to remember it? I’m no spring-chicken, so I grew up reading books, watching TV ads, getting news from a paper with articles longer than 140 characters, and no distractions. I’m capable of processing long-form communication, however as social media, multiple-screens and short-form communication grow, I find myself less willing to commit long periods of mental time to one activity. Like a growing proportion of the population, I’m accustomed to the sound-bite, snippet culture of communication. So, having shouted from the telly at the top of our heads while we check our email or Facebook, it seems it’s far better to have lodged an irritation of the brand in our sub-conscious than nothing at all. It’s no surprise that we increasingly prefer ad free streaming services such as Netflix, record shows for later, or simply buffer 20 minutes of live TV so we can blip through the ads. Why would we do anything else? Advertisers have collectively made these segments of our lives unappealing, and I’d suggest have killed the goose that laid the golden egg.

Hyper-targeted ads

One solution to the advertisers problem of potentially huge quantities of wastage is Sky AdSmart  This solution takes subscriber data and allows you, the advertiser, to deliver ads to very precisely targeted audiences. The costs are eye-watering, but you should be delivering the right ad to the right person, and you only pay for a view when 75% of the ad has been viewed.

Getting through

If I look at the brands that I like and respect (Apple, Amazon, BBC, NatWest, First Direct, Wiggle, Audi, Thule, Garmin) I don’t find any one of these having to irritate me into action. They talk to me as an adult and deliver consistently great service. Will we only respond if we have someone shouting a brand-name on a loop, in a contrived scenario, populated by buffoons, doing absurd things in the name of advertising? I hope not. It’s a bleak future if we do.