How British advertising shaped our culture

In March, the IPA will celebrate its centenary by staging the first Festival Of British Advertising.

This won’t be one of those things where ad people go to listen to other ad people talk about the industry. It will be a celebration of the myriad ways in which advertising has transcended the media and impacted upon the wider world: from the movies we watch, the music we listen to and the political parties we vote for. Alan Parker will host a screening of his first movie Bugsy Malone where he will explain how a career in advertising trained him for an Oscar winning career in movies. Adam Buxton will perform an exclusive show that romps through the funniest TV ads of all time. The team from Saatchis will be joined by some of their political clients to discuss the way in which they shaped election history. And there will be a star studded panel type show called Pop Goes The Ad Break hosted by Eamonn Holmes.

There will also be an exhibition at the Old Truman Brewery on Brick Lane which will bring together the very best of the industry’s creativity of the the past 100 years: from long forgotten gems of the pre-war years to the most innovative digital work that continues to enrapture us today.

And of course all of those memorable, brilliantly nostalgic ads of the late 20th century that, for many of us, permeated our formative years.

The period between the mid-sixties and mid-eighties was a creative watershed during which Britain showed the world that advertising didn’t need to be like a sharp suited, fast talking salesman trying to flog you stuff you weren’t sure you needed. It could instead be charismatic, engaging, daft and disarming.

This was the era in which Heineken refreshed the parts that other beers couldn’t reach. When happiness was a cigar called Hamlet. Where the Honey Monster was so wired on Sugar Puffs that he mistook a middle aged man to be his mummy. When we were sold cigarettes by cryptic works of ambitious surrealism. Kids sang the Um-Bongo song in the playground and everyone knew that Ian Rush drank milk.

It was a period in which the public perception of advertising changed for the better. In 1953, Labour icon and father of the NHS Aneurin Bevan had told delegates at the Advertising Association: "I regard advertising as one of the most evil consequences of a society which is itself evil … you are harnessed to an evil machine which is doing great harm to society … the consumer is passive, besieged, assaulted, battered and robbed."

That might have been a touch overblown but it was not an entirely uncommon point of view among the wider public of the day. But two years later David Ogilvy, the British adman who had conquered America, showed how to conquer this perception of advertising when he wrote: "The consumer is not a moron, she is your wife."

It was this simple thought – picked up and run with by Bill Bernbach in the United States before being taken even further by his acolytes in the UK – that triggered a new creative approach that would help advertising change the world in which we lived.

The realisation that advertising was not about manipulating the consumer but understanding them and appealing to their better instincts delivered better creativity. In the sixties, as social and economic changes engendered a generation of teen consumers, agencies and clients alike realised that the old guard of posh suits and tweedy poets were not up to communicating with any authenticity.

So they started to actively recruit creatives who were just like the consumers they were trying to talk to.

In 1963, Peter Mayle – decades before he became a record-breaking author – hired a young Alan Parker. “People like Alan were perfect for us because they were on the same wavelength as the people we were selling to,” he told me. “They hadn't picked up all the bad middle class habits. Give a product to an Oxbridge literary graduate, he’ll go away and write a bloody sonnet! The young people we hired were people who could write ads in the sort of colloquial style that had already taken off in America.”

Parker was a working class Londoner who had worked his way up from the post rooms of Maxwell Clark. Soon, he would become the industry’s most successful copywriter, then director. His award winning ads for Birdseye featured scruffy haired, snot nosed kids exchanging wisecracks over their burgers in 1970s kitchens. When he wanted to direct his first feature film, a gangster movie with a child-only cast called Bugsy Malone, the ads provided him with the perfect calling card.

He was swiftly followed into the movie industry by fellow ad directors Hugh Hudson, Adrian Lyne and Ridley Scott.

By the eighties, the lush aesthetic of the British ad break dominated Hollywood movies, from Blade Runner to Top Gun to Fatal Attraction, the defining movies of the era were created by alumni from London’s adland.

But advertising wasn’t just making an impact on popular culture. The IPA had been formed in 1917 at the request of the government to assist them with public information. The industry took up the challenge and ran with it and campaigns for everything from seatbelt use to Aids awareness have provided some of the creative highlights of the past century. Over time, the nature of public discourse and the relationship between the public and the state changed for the better, as a result of advertising’s creative efforts.

Charlie Saatchi had learned his trade at CDP, lending edge and humour to campaigns for cars, booze and fags. But at Saatchi & Saatchi he applied the same approach to ads that warned the public about the dangers of smoking or championed food hygiene or contraception. ‘You can’t scrub your lungs clean’ heralded a bold new tone for the government’s anti-smoking campaign. Soon afterwards, Jeremy Sinclair created the iconic Pregnant Man poster for the same client. The very nature of public discourse was being loosened up by a small group of young ad creatives. Next, they turned their attentions to politics. When they created the revolutionary Labour Isn’t Working Poster for Margaret Thatcher in 1978, adland still couldn’t believe that the Conservatives had hired an agency as young, as small or as cavalier as Saatchi & Saatchi. Wishing a couple of years, they became the first and only ad agency to become a household name.

The technology, production and culture of the industry has of course changed a great deal since then. But from John Lewis' Christmas work to Channel 4’s Superhumans campaigns, advertising continues to reflect changing attitudes and advance social issues. It does so with a lightness of touch and a compelling simplicity that has been cultivated and honed by generations of brilliant creative talent. The Festival Of British Advertising will give everyone a chance to see exactly how they did it.

Sam Delaney is a journalist, broadcaster and author of the advertising titles 'Mad Men and Bad Men: What Happened When British Politics Met Advertising' and 'Get Smashed'. He tweets @DelaneyMan

The IPA Festival of British Advertising exhibition will be at The Old Truman Brewery, London E1 from 9th -12th March 2017, along with a live events programme across London. Tickets and further info at

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