Some ads hold up across time, cultures (Part 1)

So it's late August, and I'm getting ready to fly to Hong Kong, to spend a week as a visiting creative strategist guru. This is good, the assignment is interesting, the fee is fine, I can enjoy this.
Then my e-mail beeps and it's my Hong Kong host, halfway around the world. He would like me, as part of the get-to-know-each-other period, to make a brief presentation on good advertising. I panic.

‘Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.’ – Samuel Johnson

So it’s late August, and I’m getting ready to fly to Hong Kong, to spend a week as a visiting creative strategist guru. This is good, the assignment is interesting, the fee is fine, I can enjoy this.

Then my e-mail beeps and it’s my Hong Kong host, halfway around the world. He would like me, as part of the get-to-know-each-other period, to make a brief presentation on good advertising. I panic.

It’s not an unreasonable request, and it’s not that I haven’t made plenty of advertising presentations. It’s the lack of context. I have no idea what my audience’s frame of reference is.

If I want to quote great ad people, will David Ogilvy mean anything to them? If I want to talk trustworthy presenters, what kind of blank look will I get by citing Bill Cosby? Is that great headline still cute in Mandarin or Cantonese? Where are they on clutter, film versus tape, borrowed interest, or media convergence?

Well, I had to do something. So I started going through old boxes, searching for inspiration.

I found a tape marked ‘The 100 Best Commercials Of All Time.’ Unfortunately, ‘Of All Time’ was, shall we say, a little dated. The tape was labeled 1989, but the contents were even older than that. In these ’100 Best Commercials Of All Time,’ time expired about 1975.

What the hell, said I, I’ll take a look. And you know what? These damn commercials were good. Throw away the funny haircuts, and the occasional presence of black-and-white, and these spots had concepts and executions that creators would be proud of today.

I decided that classic commercials can make some classic points, and so I chose fifteen of the great one hundred. I divided them into ‘POSITIONING’ and ‘DEMOS’ and ‘PARITY PRODUCTS’…and then I added a fourth category that I’ll get to in a moment.

Under ‘POSITIONING,’ I put the automotive masterpieces for Volkswagen and Volvo. These were the campaigns in which Bill Bernbach and Carl Ally first realized that a) Detroit advertising sucked and b) therein lay opportunity. Volkswagen became the car for the independent, economy-minded individual; Volvo grabbed hold of the word ‘safety’ and made it forever theirs.

I also added a Pepsi commercial, a science-fiction beauty in which superior beings ignore a Coca-Cola machine and beam up the Pepsi one standing beside it. It was an early example of Pepsi’s move from a price brand to a power marketer. They’ve been a strong, youth-oriented gadfly against Coke, all the way up to today with Britney Spears. And when you position yourself as ‘The Choice of a New Generation’ …where does that leave your arch-competitor?

Under ‘DEMOS,’ I put one of the most compelling, totally underplayed spots ever made. It’s a black-and-white corporate commercial for Union Carbide, and it talks about what a great insulation they make. The key to the spot is, it’s two minutes long and the camera never moves.

On a table sits a beaker of water, over a bunsen burner, boiling like hell. Hands open up a cube-shaped container made of the miracle insulation, and they pop inside the cutest little newborn chick you ever saw. Cube goes in boiling water. Voice-over starts to talk.

Voice-over talks. And talks. And talks. And talks. Viewer doesn’t listen. Viewer is hypnotized by the fate of that damn little bird. In fact, viewer strongly wants announcer to shut up and rescue the surely-soggy-and-parboiled little fledgling.

Finally, the voice-over has made all his copy points, and sums up. ‘If you don’t believe all our claims…watch the birdie.’ And of course, in the best Doug Henning tradition, the chick emerges happy and unharmed. And I swear to God, you’re grateful to Union Carbide for making such nifty insulation.

There are still a lot of spots left on my classic reel and a lot of points to make from my Hong Kong presentation, but there isn’t any room left in this column. Therefore…to be continued. See you next issue.

John Burghardt’s checkered resume includes the presidency of a national agency, several films for the Shah’s government in Iran, collaboration with Jim Henson to create the Cookie Monster, and a Cannes Gold Lion. The letterhead of his thriving business now reads ‘STRATEGIC PLANNING * CREATIVE THINKING.’ He can be reached by phone at (416) 693-5072 or by e-mail at burgwarp@aol.com.