My Favourite Writing #6: John Allison

As our regular reader will know, it’s our belief that regardless of strategy, creativity and the creative crafts ultimately make the difference between great advertising and not-so-great advertising. And none more so than great writing. Regardless of media or technology, great writing is still the most powerful tool available to the marketer and advertiser. So we've been asking people whose opinions we respect to tell us their favourite three pieces of advertising writing. And thankfully most of them didn't tell us to fuck off. We’re running them as an irregular series. Today's is number six, with selections from John Allison...

“Ian McEwan recently wrote that advertising is full of “third raters” bombarding everyone with their “aggressive low intelligence”.

He may have a point when it comes to the majority of ads. But come on Ian. Some are really good.

Two thirds of my listed copy choices aren’t strictly adverts. However, they are all selling something. From the concept of all encompassing primal fear to…a nice hot beef drink.

(All written in a “first rate” manner).

1 – The Alien poster

In a video shop in the East Midlands during the eighties no can hear you shit your pants.

It uses a brutal economy of words that makes it all the more unsettling, the headline sends you to space and leaves you to panic, suffocate and then die in just seven words. It’s a clinically brilliant bit of writing and a psychologically disturbing nightmare of a headline.

Although a cliché now, back then it sold the genre-blending concept of a horror set in space in such an oppressive, claustrophobic way that it took me three years to grow the balls to watch it. With my Mum.

2 – The Bovril poster

My creative partner’s surname is Bovill but that’s not the reason why this is in the list, although he does look like a big lovely hairy bovine anthropomorphised creature.

This didn’t ambush me like the Alien poster but it had a lasting effect nonetheless. I first saw this while deciding whether or not to take up advertising as a possible profession and it’s leftfield approach has stayed with me ever since.

It serves as a reminder that we’re not as clever or brave as we think we are. I can’t imagine any meat-based brands today openly reminding consumers that their product comes from bloody slaughtered beasts, but surely what you want from your beef drink is dead cow in a cup.

Its just a really odd bit of writing that made me laugh. Its surreal and silly and very British. The cod-Shakespearian language coming from a mournful cow is very Pythonesque, even though the term “Pythonesque” wasn’t to be coined for another 50 years or so. I love the tear for his fallen comrade. Such pathos.

It’s so simple and fresh that it could still run 100 years later.

3 – Wall and Peace
So this brings my score of non-advertising copy in a list of best advertising copy to two out of three. Sorry.

‘Saying what you aren’t’ can be more revealing than saying what you are. I love the classic negative-quotation-as-headline ad approach such as “I never read the Economist” but this takes it to the next level.

Here, the establishment itself has been tricked into providing a quote against it’s will. Its by far the cleverest thing in the book and it says more about the miserable Bristolian public school boy than any glowing gushing back of the book quote could ever say.

Anyway, who cares if its not an ad, getting one over on the ol’ tit-heads is always fun.


More copy (some of it actually advertising) that tickles me.

The 2001 Space odyssey zero gravity toilet instructions

It only appears for a few frames but someone spent the time to create a plausible set of instructions on how to go for a dump whilst floating in space. The absolute commitment to detail is the reason nerds are still geeking out over it decades later. Read them here

American TV spot endlines from the last decade
America gave birth to some ridiculous endlines that just on paper made me laugh.
Fox Sports. Beware of things made in October.
Combos Chips. What your mum would feed you if your mum was a man.
Burger King. Eat like snake.

Damien Hirst artwork titles
Half the time he’s taking the piss, but then he’s also the UK’s richest living artist so he’s doing something right. You can’t argue with a title like Beautiful Revolving Sphincter, Oops Brown or The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living.

Screw you Ian.”

Thanks John.

My Favourite Writing #1: Mark Denton
My Favourite Writing #2: Drayton Bird
My Favourite Writing #3: Ben Kay
My Favourite Writing #4: Dave Trott
My Favourite Writing #5: Vinny Warren


  1. Boom! Another copywriter with a beard for my copywriters with beards twitter list.

    PS. The word I had to copy to verify this comment was 'gotcha!'

  2. Interesting stuff - I love the Bovril poster, and the US endlines.

  3. That Alien poster is a brilliant piece of advertising. There is so much in the 'no one can hear you scream line'.

  4. What's Badly Drawn Boy doing in the Hayes Thompson photograph?

    Is it because he's got a beard?

  5. To be fair to McEwan, it's a character in his book 'Solar' who thinks that advertising is full of second-rate people.
    Maybe the author himself really respects us. Or not...

  6. Ah the old "a character sadi, not me" author's defence. That opinion must've been in his head somewhere.

    Great ads though, thanks for sharing.


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