Raising a glass to the compelling and heartwarming Guinness Sapeurs, by John Jessup

In the latest edition of The Drum magazine, two creative heavyweights offer two very different perspectives on the widely praised new Guinness ad, Sapeurs. Here Jon Jessup, until recently the long-time creative director of Leo Burnett London, explains why Guinness has scored another advertising success.

You can read Lewis Blackwell's contrasting take here: Why Guinness needs a dressing down for its Sapeurs ad

So here we are in the Congo, which over the last few decades has cornered the market in despair, depravation and sheer horror, circumstances that we in our sheltered little isle find hard to comprehend.

In this story we have a bunch of guys who have found joy and hope in the shape of their splendid threads. The Society of Elegant Persons or ‘Sapeurs’, as they call themselves, are the phoenixes that have risen from the ashes of this war ravaged corner of Africa, and the fabulous outfits they wear help them and the people around them rise above their surroundings.

The beginning of the advertisement fools us into thinking this is going to be a film about the bad things that stalk this part of the planet as we see flames and filth in dramatic slow motion. Our protagonists go about their daily chores, sugar cane cropper, iceman and welder, jobs that you wouldn’t wish on the worst benefit cheat. We watch them transform themselves from work dirty, ugly ducks into handsome strutting peacocks. The small, attention to detail, touches are dutifully examined in closeup. A shoe being polished, a cuff being pimped, the brim of a finely crafted piece of millinery is preened between thumb and finger.

The whole story is one of transformation. You can feel the pride they carry with them in every step, as they strut their finery through the streets of Brazzaville. The contrast between the extravagance of the clobber and the desperate poverty that acts as a backdrop is perfectly captured. The editing gives us the sense of the coming together of these ‘Lords of the Lairy’ and the lovely exchanges they share with their friends and neighbours increase the joyful feelings. The characters are both believable and unbelievable, and the more I watched the ad the more I got to know these chaps, they are a local ‘cause célèbre’ but in a wonderfully happy-go-lucky way.

The scenes where our heroes come together are reminiscent of ‘Reservoir Dogs’ but this time the colour is in the clothes they are wearing rather than the characters’ names, and these colours are flamboyant to say the least. A yellow suit with matching umbrella, pink, purple and orange jackets and there is even a man in a kilt, but don’t ask me what clan he belongs to.

The music, ‘What makes a good man’ by UK indie rock band ‘The Heavy’, is a surprising choice. They could have gone for something retro or African, but this track works remarkably well. The dark nature of the track underpins the brooding atmosphere at the very beginning of the commercial, and then as the dudes finally come together and strut their stuff in the pub it acts as the perfect counterpoint to their individual and unique choreography. I have to say that this spot brought a nostalgic tear to my jaundiced eye as I hearkened back to my ‘Mod’ days, when the lads and I would don our best ‘whistles’ and go out to the local dance hall on a Saturday night.

There is one thing about this ad that I think could have been better though. I find the narrative unnecessary and a bit grating. The style of the voice over on the documentary it links to has far more conviction.

So what has all this got to do with an Irish stout you may well ask? I see it like this.

Guinness is a global brand, go anywhere in the world and you can find a pint or a bottle of it, and nothing perks you up like a glass of ale at the end of a tiresome day, so the beer acts as the perfect compliment to the ‘Sapeurs’ outrageous outfits, lifting the spirits of both them and their fellow beings.

Let me say this is not an ad that reaches the heights of the seminal Guinness ‘Surfer’ ad, ‘Tick tock” and all that, but the truth behind this commercial is both compelling and heartwarming.

I’ll raise a glass to that.

John Jessup has been involved in many award-winning campaigns for some of the UK's best-loved brands, including Kellogg's, McDonald's and Nestle. Until December 2013, he was creative director at Leo Burnett London where he had plied his trade for 21 years.

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