For some time now, we’ve been stroking our chins and pondering why no-one makes any great beer ads in this country any more. I think the last new campaign to surface that could genuinely be called great was the John Smith’s work fronted by Peter Kay and that was at least five years ago.
That series of ads captured the imagination of the public in the way that the classic Carling/Carlsberg/Heineken/Fosters/Castlemaine XXXX/Fosters commercials did in the beer advertising heyday of the 1980’s and early 90’s. All these ads made people laugh out loud. They got talked about in the pub, on the bus, in the papers. They were part of, whisper it, “popular culture”.
Whenever ordinary punters were asked in research groups in the warm-up stages what ads they liked, it was always the beer ads that were mentioned first. I very much doubt that’s the case now.
Since those John Smith’s ads there’s been nowt that you could say has even come close to reaching those heights. Zilch. Nuffink. Nada. Not a sausage.
Here’s a little theory why this is the case and we’ve not witnessed the birth or extension of any great advertising campaigns in recent times.
1. “You Can’t Do That”
In the dark days of binge-drinking Britain, there’s no denying it’s much, much tougher to get approval from the “powers that be” on ideas for booze advertising.
The code of practice has tightened up considerably and whereas in the past clearly farcical and exaggerated situations would be deemed admissible, it’s a no-go area for anything that implies any sort of transformative effect or immoderate consumption.
Guess that would rule out Castlemaine XXXX along with anything done in the “Heineken Refreshes The Parts” and “I bet he drinks Carling Black label”. Hofmeister’s “Follow The Bear” would fail on almost every count (There’s probably now some sort of provision in the notes of guidance prohibiting bears in yellow jackets and pork pie hats…).
Despite these restrictive circumstances it should still be possible for a great beer campaign to see the light of day. However, there are some other factors at play.
2. Creatives have become obsessed with the cool and the clever.
I don’t buy the argument for one minute that the creatives of today are less talented than their brethren from yesteryear.
I do think it’s true, however, that there’s a generation of teams around now who would rather French kiss a rabid dog than produce anything that could be considered populist or have mainstream appeal. You’ll never get them to admit it but, for many creatives, making ads that show they are a right old clever clogs is much more important to them than doing stuff that connects with people.
The dogged, unyielding pursuit of originality and awards along with the driving force of personal fame and glory has blinded many a creative soul who now actively choose to forsake coming up with ideas that will be liked by the majority of the Great British Public in favour of ideas that will be lauded by the Tiny Adland Public.
Aligned to this is the unhealthy “not invented here” syndrome that many teams have with always wanting to kick-off something from scratch rather than follow in the footsteps of a previous campaign and building on the foundations of an existing idea.
These days, getting a team to continue an idea that was generated by somebody else is almost akin to getting them to wear somebody else’s soiled pants. It seems that if something isn’t brand, shiny and new it’s inherently less “creative”. That probably explains why there’s more emphasis on hunting out new filmic techniques and finding the latest directors to jazz up an idea rather than on good old craft skills like writing a cracking script that has sparkling dialogue and a truly memorable pay-off.
3. The Client Landscape Has Changed
It’s unfair to lay all the blame at the door of the creative department. Clients also need to shoulder some responsibility for the steep decline in the quality of output.
Part of this is down to the steep decline in the volume of output. Nowadays, there’s much, much less beer advertising around than there used to be. That means the odds of a great campaign emerging have lengthened dramatically. In the last decade, the global mega-brewery has also arisen. Mergers and consolidation has meant that beers that were previously supported with TV advertising have been milked and had their investment withdrawn as clients have concentrated their attention on the leading brands in their portfolio.
This has meant that the stakes have been raised for each of the leading brands that are still being advertised – the vast majority of which operate across borders on a pan-European scale.
Gone are the days when a campaign could be signed off with a nod and a wink from a confident marketing director with a good instinct for judging advertising and a deep trust in the agency employed to produce it. Instead, there’s likely to be several layers of clients in every organization all clamouring to have a hand in the approval process.
It’s a simple fact that the more people there are involved in the approval of any campaign, the less chance there is of the end product being outstanding. Too many cooks really does spoil the broth of creativity.
Also, I reckon in the current climate that there’s a significant fear factor in play when clients are faced with giving their blessing to new campaigns. They’d rather play it safe and not rock the boat rather than put their neck on the line for something – especially if their stewardship of the brand is only going to be a two year sojourn in their upward career trajectory.
Put this observation alongside the trend amongst certain clients (and agencies for that matter) to over-think and research things to death and you’ve got another hefty barrier standing in the way of advertising greatness.
4. You don’t need to show the kind of people who you want to drink your beer in the advertising. Honestly, you don’t.
It’s a huge misconception that putting a mirror to the target audience will immediately endear them to your brand.
Actually, I think the opposite applies and that this casting by numbers is insulting to the intelligence of any audience and rarely results in anything truly special.
There’s way too much emphasis placed on ensuring beer ads feature the type of “regular blokes” that “regular blokes” can identify with. This casting by numbers results in a kind of uniform blandness where everyone in the ad looks the same and lacks character of any kind as a consequence (Take a look at the drinkers in the recent campaigns for Carlsberg, Fosters, Coors, Strongbow for example. They’re all interchangeable).
People are much more likely to identify with a brand if it has engaging, rewarding and entertaining advertising based on some sort of product truth. It’s the quality of the underlying idea that has the power to make a real difference, not whether two or three smug fellas with a bit of stubble, spiky hair and gormless smiles are quaffing the beer in a self-satisfied manner.
5. Television is no longer king of media channels.
Well, if the beer ads that are currently on telly aren’t great, it’s also fair to say that the campaigns that don’t use TV advertising are no great shakes either.
I’d wager that the amount of cash being spent on television advertising for beer brands has diminished significantly in relative terms over the last ten years.
Not only are there much fewer brands advertising (remember the days when regional ales used to have a TV presence in their heartland?) but media expenditure is being distributed amongst a much wider set of channels.
My hunch is that brands who might previously have considered TV as an option have had their heads turned by the bandwagon jumpers falsely proclaiming the death of television as a medium.
I’m sure the likes of sponsorship and digital have benefited massively from this shift and millions has probably been diverted into trade marketing to support distribution and the price promotions wars.
As an aside, I don’t believe that idents are in any way a decent substitute for a 30 second commercial either. They tend to be merely about name recognition and association with whichever programme is being sponsored rather than standalone pieces of engaging advertising.
It might be a deeply unfashionable view, but I think it’s a big ask to create a great, long running advertising campaign for a beer brand without having a TV commercial at the heart of it. No other medium can come close in terms of cut through. No other medium can come close in terms of giving a brand an emotional edge, engagement, appeal, resonance and fame.
Now, I’m not saying it’s impossible to come up with a corking campaign that doesn’t have a TV or cinema ad in the mix, but without some sort of audiovisual presence, a beer brand can feel relatively one dimensional and flat (excuse the pun).
Even if a TV advertising budget is beyond the reach of the most moderate of budgets, it’s still possible to produce something dead good for t’internet or the brand’s own website without breaking the bank. If a script is interesting enough and has potential, you’ll have no problem finding a top notch production company and director to take it on.
I’m really hoping that we haven’t seen the last of the great beer ads but the forecast’s looking bleak at the moment. Fingers crossed that an agency somewhere in the UK is working on a campaign that will buck this trend. Somehow, I doubt it.