The 90s was a decadent time, when sophisticated television adverts had moved past the era of the kid playing with the puppy and the static pack-shot at the end. It was almost perceived as vulgar to appear too needy in your TV ads. This led to a golden age of outrageous creativity. TV ads from this decade embedded themselves in the memory, representing the zeitgeist, inspiring commentary and accolades by the crate-load.
It’s an age comparable to Hollywood of the 1970s, when movie directors were given unprecedented, unrestricted artistic freedom. The directors became superstars, the movies became legends. The biggest TV adverts of the ’90s were made under similar conditions, everything was permitted, no idea was too bizarre, no budget too inflated.
These adverts certainly won a lot of awards. But, did they sell a lot of products?
Now that the advertising landscape has changed, with subscription channels stealing away the viewers from traditional commercial TV channels, this has resulted in a palpable change in the way adverts are made. The real marketing creativity, these days, can often be seen online – where engagement and effectiveness can be measured in clicks, likes, dwell-time and, ultimately, in sales.
Will commentators, in 20 years’ time, be writing in glowing terms about the life insurance and payday loan adverts that swell our TV ad-breaks today? Probably not.
But, for now, let’s step back to a decade when TV adverts were the gold standard of marketing. Bask in the reflected glory of a golden age.
Tango – Orange Man (1992)
Once in a while a phrase from an advert will enter the language. “Lovely jubbly” is one such (thanks to an obscure 1950s orange drink and a slightly less obscure 1970s sit-com). “Does exactly what it says on the tin” is another (courtesy of Ronseal) and, for a lengthy stretch in the 90s, “You know when you’ve been Tango’d” was one of those go-to phrases.
The ad was a slap in the face for British advertising, helping to bring a more youth-focussed, disruptive tone to marketing. Such was the power and popularity of the ad, it was implicated in causing school playground injuries, as children took to slapping each other on the ears (in the ad, it’s clearly the cheeks that are slapped). The ad was produced by Howell, Henry, Chaldecott, Lury and Partners, who quickly responded to the controversy by rolling out a couple of alternative versions; one in which the orange man kissed the drinker instead of slapping him and a second variation in which the drinker spotted the orange man coming and legged it.
But, the initial impact had been made and Tango saw a 30% increase in sales almost overnight. Which suggests that, after this ad, we’d all been Tango’d.
Dunlop – Tested for the Unexpected (1993)
Well, no-one expected to hear The Velvet Underground in a TV ad, but there they are, with Venus in Furs. This was the brainchild of British director Tony Kaye, whose music videos had, by that time, earned him no fewer than six Grammy nominations; so it’s fair to say he had some connections in the music industry.
The look of the video is created through a variety of techniques – including filming in black and white and adding the colour digitally afterwards (a novel and complicated process, back in ’93).
The inspiration for the surreal imagery came from various European artists, such as Luis Buñuel, with more than a splash of the extravagance of the film director Federico Fellini.
As with any ad that bombards the viewer with abstract images, one has to wonder if this actually shifted any tyres. In the days before direct marketing and analytics, it was nigh-on impossible to tell how effective ads were.
Coca Cola – Diet Coke Break (1995)
Although it possibly doesn’t feel like it, today; this was groundbreaking stuff in the 90s. It isn’t just the drink that’s refreshing; the ad succeeds in turning on their heads the out-dated sexual stereotypes that commercials had traded in for decades. That was very refreshing.
For all those people tired by the constant barrage of images of scantily-clad women seductively eating chocolate bars, this advert was a brave attempt to redress the imbalance.
Such was the impact and success of this advert, variations of it were still being made by Coke, as recently as 2013. The original ad was even parodied in 2019 by Vauxhall, to advertise the Astra Light (it drinks very little petrol, apparently).
The genius of this TV ad is, it also successfully implanted the phrase ‘Coke break’ into the minds and drinking habits of office workers the world over.
Playstation – Mental Wealth (1999)
Most adverts are designed to tell you that buying such-and-such a product will make you feel good. These adverts are designed to be reassuring. Video game adverts, therefore, feature shots of families happily playing together, intercut with shots of actual gameplay. That makes sense, yes?
Not to Playstation in the 90s, it didn’t.
Director, Chris Cunningham’s Playstation commercial uses very-very early motion capture technology (years before Lord of the Rings made mo-cap a thing that people knew and understood) to extend and distort the face of the actress (real name, Fiona Maclaine). So, no, she doesn’t really look like an alien.
This was part of Playstation’s ongoing campaign to create weird and disturbing ads which had nothing to do with playing video games. There was a sculpture made from human bodies. There was the tattooed newborn baby. Then, there was the slaughtered goat. These ads were, clearly, designed to get banned.
Sony was cultivating a guerrilla, counter-culture image for its new toy – and using shock tactics was seen as a great way of earning street cred. For other examples, look at the United Colours of Benetton press and billboard ads of roughly the same time.
Guinness – Surfer (1999)
When this advert hit the (air)waves, it won every significant award it could win.
Then, in 2002, a survey conducted by The Sunday Times concluded that this was actually the best advert ever made. The Independent doubled-down on this in their own survey in 2009. Who are we to argue?
The advert was directed by the enigmatic pop video director (now film director), Jonathan Glazer, and featured the music of the band Leftfield.
Its message reaches for the conceptual, rather than the literal. Not for this ad the cheery pub and the happy drinkers; no, this ad focuses on the fact that a decent pint of Guinness took a while to pour. Some may have seen this as a design flaw, as a reason to steer clear and drink a different pint. So, very cleverly, this campaign reminds people that good things are worth waiting for.
Cue exhilarating images of average Joe surfers achieving the pinnacle of their sport, riding a dark wave with a white head of foam. So, this ad suggests, maybe drinking a dark liquid with a white head might be just as exciting as surfing on one.
This is an ad where the imagery relates to the product at an emotional level, rather than an intellectual one. This ad ran for years and spawned several black and white sequels. It not only won every award going, it shifted a lot of stout.
Here’s to you, Ahab.
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So, the decade ended on the crest of a wave. But, which were the standout ads of the ’90s for you? Which ones did you learn from, or give in to? Which ones stay with you to this day? Come and find us on Facebook or Twitter and share the links.