Off the back of a fag packet

As of 24th February 2003, all tobacco advertising is outlawed in the UK. There's no reason, of course, to miss something that encouraged 'hard' teenagers to clog up airless buses with smoke and miserable-looking office workers to huddle moodily outside the back entrance of their workplace. And there were all the warnings in public information films - including such notable examples as Superman beating the living tar out of Nick O'Teen, the frightening genetic mutation that was 'The World's Last Smoker', that Robert Elms-style 'geezer' who thumped an artificial leg that he had apparently acquired through tobacco consumption on a table top, and the teenage skinhead who muttered "not tonight, I'm washing my hair" to a smoking girl who tried to seduce him - that warned us so effectively about the evils of the demon weed. Yet at the same time, it's quite sad to think that some of the most, shall we say, 'distinctive' advertising campaigns of the media age are now to become a thing of the past. With this in mind, TVC presents - in, as ever, no particular order - an arbitrary rundown of our 10 favourite promotional campaigns that made people stare at billboards and think "... erm?".


This rightfully belongs to a long-vanished dim and distant pre-Cream era world of monochrome television and everything being written in stylised italicised fonts, but as it's probably the most notorious ad campaign in the entire history of tobacco, it deserves a mention here. Presumably hoping to maximise their profit margin among the dejected post-war thirtysomethings who felt alienated and confused by Elvis Presley and "Quatermass II", the once-popular Strand tobacco company greeted the arrival of commercial television in the late 1950s with an imaginative campaign showing Frank Sinatra lookalike Terence Brooks lighting up on a lonely street corner. The accompanying caption reassured viewers that "you're never alone with a Strand", as Cliff Adams' haunting instrumental played in the background. The ads were certainly popular, and Adams' reworking of the 'Lonely Man Theme' later became a huge hit, but the unfortunate outcome was that consumers, subconsciously associating Strand with loneliness and unsociability, stayed away from the brand in their droves. Strand soon disappeared from the market, and one of the biggest misfires of television advertising history was quietly forgotten by everyone. Everyone, that is, except academics studying the history of television advertising. And Victor Lewis-Smith.



Benson And Hedges always fancied themselves as being on a higher plane of intellectualism and sophistication than their marketplace rivals, and in the early 1990s they took this pretence to new extremes by incorporating fiendish puzzles into their billboard adverts. No doubt hoping to attract a sudden influx of new customers from that small subsector of society who will chuckle quietly to themselves on recognition of something 'wry' that only intellectuals like themselves and their beards can understand, the company appeared to believe that the best way to accomplish this was to turn their adverts into overliteral visualisations of cryptic crossword clues. Hence, for example, the appearance in one advert of two cherubic figures made up entirely of ears. As the helpful '(3, 3)' hint suggested, this corresponded to the answer 'All Ears'. Another ad featured red crabs hanging from a tree, with the given duration '(4, 6)', leading Chris Morris to suggest rather tastelessly on his Radio 1 show that the answer may actually have been 'lung cancer'. Although quite what punters were supposed to do with these answers in the absence of any actual crossword is less clear. Add to this the fact that the majority of the target audience were probably wrestling with newspaper crosswords of their own anyway, and the whole point of the entire venture seems somewhat elusive.

Benson and Hedges Gold Watch Benson and Hedges


Following decades and decades of the tobacco industry striving to create a classy and sophisticated image through advertising campaigns, the early 1990s saw Regal decide to throw everything to do with this long-established practice out of the window and concentrate on sheer lowest common denominator silliness. The result was a series of billboard adverts featuring a portly gentleman named Reg, who proudly announced "I smoke 'em because my name's on 'em" whilst cunningly obscuring the 'al' bit of 'Regal' with his fingers. Variety quickly followed in the form of 'Reg's Twin Brother Al', namely the same gentleman adopting the cunning disguise of a badly fitting wig and rearranging the positioning of his fingers for a 'clever' twist on the established "I smoke 'em 'cause me name's on 'em" gambit, and a baffling later edition when inspiration was clearly waning that saw Reg offering his thoughts on the Greenhouse Effect. Something to do with entering his vegetables in a gardening competition, apparently. The 'Reg' adverts certainly attracted the attention of the nation, but unfortunately for Regal this was mainly through the disapproving comments of advertising watchdogs who felt that the introduction of a cheery jocular character into the previously mean and moody world of tobacco advertising would encourage more youngsters to take up smoking. Quite a leap of logic, you have to admit, but there was plenty of general panic over alcopops and 'video violence' around that time, so everyone tended to take their comments on face value. Needless to say, the campaign was promptly withdrawn, but not before it was memorably parodied by Viz with the alternate tag-line "I smoke 'em 'cause I'm clinically addicted to the nicotine".



Many years before the irritating craze for 'magic eye' pictures took hold, billboard and magazine adverts for Silk Cut cigarettes routinely carried what was, in effect, their own crude equivalent - heavily pixilated pictures of everyday objects that required people to take several steps backwards and squint very heavily in order to stand any hope whatsoever of being able to make them out. Surprisingly, the images that lay behind these fiendishly complicated optical puzzles were never really worthy of such a level of concentrated attention, and included such exciting objects as an unoccupied barstool. Eventually, having run so many different variations on the theme that they had probably run out of mundane objects to photograph, Silk Cut adopted a new approach - the rather overliteral sight of a piece of silk with a neat cut in it, which came across as somewhere between the cover images of Monty Python's "The Final Rip-Off" and New Order's "The Best Of New Order". Eventually, the opted not to even bother showing the 'cut' itself; merely the vaguest threat of it as office workers lunged towards silk ties with scissors. As the deadline for the banishment of tobacco advertising drew close, Silk Cut could be seen pushing a new addition to their range, set for release a good 10 days after the abolition came into effect. Erm.

Silk Cut


Definitely one of the most oblique campaigns in the history of tobacco advertising, Mayfair's most prominent series of billboard ads borrowed the ancient traditional wedding superstition of requiring the provision of "something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue" for the happy couple before the ceremony could proceed. However, wedding bells were most certainly not in the air during this campaign. Instead, for reasons that are not at all clear, they opted to accompany the superstitious adage with images of pensioners (something old, clearly), old age-related accoutrements such as false teeth (something new), further objects related in some way to the previous object - for example a glass of water (something borrowe', apparently), and a pack of Mayfair cigarettes (something blue, despite the fact that the packet was predominantly white). To say that this setup was far from comprehensible is something of a major nderstatement - it was nigh on impossible to figure out what the images had to do with the slogan, what the slogan had to do with tobacco, why the slogan had been adopted in the first place, and whether or not it was actually supposed to be amusing in some capacity. Nevertheless, the campaign still managed to run for several years.


In an age when most advertising relies on stealing other people's ideas from films and television and re-presenting them in a clichéd and patronising manner, the idea that someone would try to promote something with a campaign driven by a combination of puns and whimsy seems like the stuff of madmen's dreams. But that's exactly what happened with Lambert And Butler in the mid-1990s, when their adverts introduced the verbally jousting figures of 'rakish' toff Lambert, and his dour, unflappable Butler. The close proximity of their arrival to the international success of textbook English fop Hugh Grant in "Four Weddings And A Funeral" should not be overlooked, nor indeed should their suspicious chronological closeness to McAlmont And Butler's assault on the pop charts with 'Yes', but for smokers and non-smokers alike, Lambert And Butler's wry exchanges were a rare delight that transcended the usual foibles of the advertising industry. The duo started off by exchanging wordplay related to the ever-descending price of the brand ("They've gone down" - "But not in my estimation, Sir", "The price is frozen" - "Looks pretty hot to me, Sir", and most memorably "We appear to have slipped, Sir" as they peered confusedly from the lower portion of the frame), but soon moved on to the more rewarding pastime of hurling good-natured insults in each other's general direction, providing endless entertainment for anyone who takes the same bus route to work every day. Their most recent, and presumably final, appearance saw their faces blurred out like "Crimewatch UK" suspects whilst Butler resignedly mused "it seems we've been outlawed, Sir". Two important points of note for true obsessives - the actor playing Lambert changed after a while, leading to "Captain Zep - Space Detective"-style debates about which incarnation was better, and the images used in the adverts veered wildly between colour and black and white like an eight millionth generation bootleg copy of an episode of "The Tomorrow People". Possibly the longest-running campaign in tobacco advertising history - the duo clocked up an impressive eight years as kings of the billboards, and would probably have managed more if they hadn't been outlawed.

Lambert and Butler


Moving away from the schoolkid-corrupting world of cigarettes towards the more 'approved' - if far more pungent and air-polluting - world of straightforward tobacco and the pipes used for smoking it, the famed St. Bruno brand is possibly best known nowadays for providing an endless supply of levered tins in which non-smoking fathers habitually store their collections of nails and different sized screws. Time was, though, when the brand was known the length and breadth of the nation for its atmospheric adverts featuring a St. Bernard dog (a classic case of someone somewhere clearly thinking "well, it sounds a bit similar" and hoping for the best) who came to the aid of lost explorers, only carrying tobacco rather than water and vital supplies in its neck-mounted barrel. Eventually the dog emblem was retired, and in its place came a series of vengeful vignettes showing pipe smokers trying their hardest to circumnavigate the generation gap, the most revered example of which showed a middle-aged man sinking a radio controlled boat operated by an obnoxious youth with his missile-bearing remote control submarine. And, lest we forget, it came in both 'flaked' and 'ready rubbed' varieties.

St Bruno


Happiness, so the campaign suggested, is a cigar called Hamlet. It's an odd definition of 'happiness' that could be compared to an object that fills rooms with acrid choking smoke and tends to clear entire buildings in seconds flat, but we'll let that go for now. Hamlet's long-running television campaign centred around the unchanging premise of troubled individuals who could seemingly never get anything right (among them a sea captain whose crew deserted him when they spotted what they believed to be the 'edge of the world', the original Channel 4 logo repeatedly turning into a '5', and Gregor Fisher recreating his 'Baldy Man' photobooth sketches from "Naked Video") finding solace in the smoke of a Hamlet cigar, inevitably to the accompaniment of Jacques Loussier's rearrangement of 'Air On A G String' by one JS Bach. Hamlet's adverts were eventually adjudged to be popular enough to merit their own tie-in compilation video (with, unsurprisingly, Gregor Fisher on the front), and there must be a sizeable proportion of the population who refer to Bach's composition as the 'Hamlet music'. Nonetheless, the adverts will possibly be best remembered in the long-term for inspiring a sketch on Channel 4's "Who Dares Wins" that invited a startling fire-and-brimstone response from religious types who were most definitely not amused.



For no readily obvious reason, images of the Wild West were all the rage with advertisers back in the 1950s, and tobacco promotion was no exception. From the midst of a great expanse of desert in the middle of nowhere (or 'Marlboro Country', as we were apparently supposed to call it), the 'Marlboro Man' rode into view to indicate how things are in the wide, free Western plains, and to convey how the rugged travellers of the old untamed wastelands relied on their wits and independence - just as is required to, erm, smoke a fag in a bus shelter in Didsbury. Needless to say, their campaign was a massive success and ran for many years, but then it all went very, very wrong. Two of the actors that had portrayed the hard-workin' God-fearin' Man Of The West over the years contracted lung cancer later in life, and subsequently became vehement anti-smoking campaigners. Hopefully, the irony that the most successful pro-smoking campaign of all time later backfired spectacularly and became the most successful anti-smoking campaign of all time is one that will not be lost on 'the people in marketing' in the long term.



Celebrity endorsement of tobacco products was something of a rarity, but the makers of Castella Classic cigars once tried to convince the general public to take up smoking their brand through a series of hilarious comedy sketches featuring Ronnie Barker and David Jason. Trading in decidedly unsubtle fashion on their familiarity to viewers from their appearances in "Porridge", the ads saw the two cast in decidedly sitcom-friendly environments (Barker visiting a mate in prison, Jason visiting an equally unfortunate acquaintance who was lying in a hospital ward swathed in bandages), and attempting to smuggle in cigars for them - but alas, as Castella Classic were reputedly wider than all of their marketplace competitors, smuggling was thwarted in true sitcom style. Close inspection of the ads breeds suspicion that Barker and Jason themselves were not actually smoking the cigars that they were seen to wield, and that the accompanying smoke had been filmed at some other time and inserted into the action with the aid of 'seamless' editing. See also Fry and Laurie's adverts for Panama cigars, which saw them provide a latterday 'alternative comedy' take on the concept with their characteristic wordplay.

They Appear To Have Slipped, Sir - TJ Worthington, Iain Griffiths, Matthew Rudd, Steve Berry

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