World’s best ads ever #78: Stella Artois’ iconic campaign peaks with ‘Devil’s Island’
We asked our readers to vote for their favorite commercials of all time. Top creatives from the World Creative Rankings and The Drum’s Judges’ Club then ranked the ads. Now, we bring you the definitive 100 best TV and video ads of all time.
The 26-year collaboration between Sir Frank Lowe’s Lowe London (now part of MullenLowe) and Stella Artois is one of the most storied in advertising history. Inaugurated in 1982, it’s the relationship that brought us the iconic ‘reassuringly expensive’ strapline and, starting in 1991, a 15-year run of marketing’s most cinematic and lauded TV spots. The campaign, arguably, peaked with its eighth ad, 2002’s ‘Devil’s Island’.
‘Reassuringly expensive’, written by Lowe’s Geoffrey Seymour (who also gave us ‘Hovis: as good for you today as it’s always been’) is one of the great examples of recontextualizing a drawback as a benefit. The lager is so expensive that it must be good. The TV campaign manifested that reassurance of expensiveness and quality in every detail: big budgets, the best talent and epic storytelling.
Inaugurated as a pastiche of French period drama Jean de Florette, the campaign’s cultural relevance has outlived that of the 1986 film.
‘Devil’s Island’ was an ambitious peak. A reported budget of £750,000 (about $1m). A six-day on-location shoot (held up by four weeks while the director hunted across Europe for his leading man). Filming in Buenos Aires (where four downtown blocks were shut down for crowd scenes) with 850 extras dressed for the 1930s. And a genuine 80-year-old ship that had to be made seaworthy before shooting could commence.
All that for a 90-second commercial that is itself another parody – of French classic novel Papillon’s tale of two convicts sent to a penal colony called Devil’s Island. In the book, a weak-but-rich convict befriends a stronger man to protect him on the transatlantic voyage. In the ad, via a classic Stella Artois inversion, the weaker man happens on a bottle of Stella and intentionally has himself locked in isolation, away from the stronger man, to drink it in peace.
The ad’s creative team is predictably stellar: star copywriter (since turned director) Vince Squibb; iconoclast director Jonathan Glazer; and on-screen talent including legendary character actor Ron Perlman.
‘Devil’s Island’ won’t be everyone’s favorite from the campaign. Some would go for the classic vintage of ‘Good Doctor’, ‘Good Samaritan’ or ‘Red Shoes’ (and elsewhere on this list you’ll see ‘Jacques de Florette’). But it’s beyond doubt that ‘Devil’s Island’ is reassuringly expensive.