Tango, Pirate advertising and Marrakech
It’s often said that TV advertising is part of advertising’s history, not its future.
This isn’t the place to discuss whether that is true or not, but we certainly don’t watch TV like we once did.
A whole generation of post-Millennials is growing up whose TV channels are Netflix, Youtube and iPlayer rather than BBC1, ITV and Channel 4.
A 30 second TV ad seems quaint; something that suburban 60-somethings might take notice of, or people who for health reasons or lack of motivation spend much of their day on the couch glued to Freeview.
TV advertising doesn’t feel radical or dangerous or counter-cultural.
But was it ever?
TV advertising has always been safe, more beige than psychedelic and constrained by tried and tested formulae. It has always opted for witty rather than rib-shatteringly funny or toe-curlingly awkward, and straight rather than unnerving or provocative.
TV advertising has always needed a rebellion; to do something that makes people sit up, to remember, to talk about. We remember the great ads with misty eyes but forget that there were almost none of these; the standout spots were always the exception to the rule that bland is best and most boats don’t need rocking.
A few months ago someone commented about one of the ads that Jim Bolton and I created at HHCL back in 1994. This was before social media; almost before the internet. We commandeered a club called Subterranea under the Westway in Paddington and handed partygoers free plastic bottles of a new soft drink called Still Tango. Until then, Tango had only been sold in cans, and it was fizzy. Still Tango was quite a departure.
The ad was designed to feel like the TV equivalent of promotion for a club night on a pirate radio station. It was shot on a dodgy camera and was stylistically all over the place. In the era of smiley coffee commercials and brightly lit mums in kitchens, it looked horrific. But that was the idea: it needed to look illegal, almost as if someone had hacked into your TV.
We then filmed Tango’s marketing director, Steve Kay reading a product recall message, urging people not to drink the product as it had nothing to do with Tango. It was a complete coup. Thousands of people called the hotline. Police were seen taking the product off children. The guy who commented on the ad remembers the teachers at his boarding school confiscating the drink from him and his friends.
The commercials were banned for undermining the public confidence in advertising but they made an impact. We had 50,000 names and addresses. We used these later in the year when the product fermented and was taken off the supermarket shelves. In case people forgot all about Still Tango while the boffins at Britvic reformulated it, we hand-wrote postcards apparently showing the product in a Souk in Marrakech and the 50,000 people on our brand new database each received a card form either “Steve” or “Claire” telling them how amazing it was that Still Tango is still available in Morocco.
It was TV, it was social, it was digital it was experiential, all before any of these were even categories in D&AD.
A couple of years later we wrote The St George spot for Blackcurrant Tango which broke yet more rules, especially the one about needing to show the target market in your advertising. The lesson is that rebellion is possible. Even the newer media needs shaking up. Things get traditional fast. Maybe its time to break a few things. The pieces you will end up with might be better than the unbroken thing you once had.