A Copywriting Blog

Jottings on Ads and Copywriting

Month: January, 2016

Ah, Melissa…

Can a great ad also be a bad ad? I ask the question with one series of adverts in mind, the Cinzano ads from 1978 to 1983 that starred Leonard Rossiter and Joan Collins made by Collett Dickenson Pearce.

‘One of the greatest advertising campaigns in British television history’, says this website. And Number 11 on Channel Four’s 100 Greatest Adverts. In fact, the ads can be said to stand as an object lesson in the lesson in the law of unintended consequences.

The series was conceived as a parody of the adverts for Martini, a few of which you can see here. ‘Any time, any place, anywhere’ the adverts said – so long as that place was a sun-drenched yacht, the Monaco Grand Prix, or a ski resort where flared Lotharios clinked glasses with doe-eyed girls. Martini: the beautiful drink for the beautiful people in beautiful places.

Woody Allen and Sean Connery were originally pencilled in for the Cinzano response, before Leonard Rossiter was brought in. Alan Parker, later to find fame in Hollywood, visited him at his home and it was Rossiter who suggested using the old gag of spilling a drink as he checked his watch.

Parker directed the first three ads in 1978. Hugh Hudson, later to direct Chariots of Fire, made the famous aeroplane and ski lodge versions, and Terry Lovelock the final two ads in 1982.

There were ten ads in all with Rossiter and Collins as the long-suffering and perpetually-drenched Melissa, victim of Rossiter’s attempts to seem a good deal more sophisticated and classy than he really was. Nothing appeals more to the British psyche than when a pretentious, pompous snob makes a complete ass of themself.

Now, judging by the popularity of the ads suggests they were a huge success. There was even talk of a film starring the two, and during the ITV strike of 1979 there were more complaints about missing the new Cinzano ads than about missing programmes.

But here’s the rub. The ads ended up being too entertaining. When research was carried out it was found most who had seen them believed they were adverts for Martini, rather than Cinzano. And it was Martini sales that went up on the back of them, not Cinzano.

‘Viewers have a way of remembering the celebrity while forgetting the product’. So wrote David Ogilvy, and such seems to have been the case with the Cinzano ads. However witty and memorable they were, they failed in their primary function which was to promote the product and brand.

More than that, they ended up boosting the sales of the very product whose ads they were parodying and who were Cinzano’s main rival in the drinks market.

Advertising is, I suppose, simply a means to an end rather than an end in itself, and that end is product promotion and sales. In that sense, then, perhaps these great ads can be said to be bad ads too.

Cinzano dropped the campaign in 1983.




Facts. Cold Hard Facts.

Sometimes copy seems to write itself. You find facts, information or customer feedback that so clearly transmits the benefit of a product or course of action to your target market that it needs little in the way of elaboration.

David Ogilvy once built an ad for Rolls-Royce around 13 factual points about their new model: the engines were run for seven hours at full throttle during manufacturing, five coats of primer and nine of finish were used, three sets of brakes installed, and 98 separate tests performed before the car could leave the factory.

And for his headline he simply used a quote from the Technical Editor of The Motor magazine that at 60 miles an hour all the driver hears is the sound of the electric clock. It all creates the image of a reliable, rigorously well-made, luxury vehicle. And guess what? Sales shot up.

This kind of information-rich copy of course relies on thorough research into the product, company and target audience. Dig first, said the great copywriter David Abbott, then write. It’s the research process that’ll uncover facts with impact, that make you think twice, say bloody hell, and stick in your head.

10% lower emissions. 25% extra space. Beats the price of x by 5%. Proven to be more efficient than y. The sort of facts that make the benefit of your product abundantly clear.

It’s especially effective in advertising from public health organisations like the NHS. A fizzy drink can contains 6 teaspoons of sugar. The average smoker needs 5000 cigarettes a year. A single fact can speak volumes.

And it works well in a B2B context when your audience is more technically-minded than the average consumer. I once wrote some copy for the website of an SEO company looking to attract small business customers based around the facts that well over 80% of consumers were now searching for local services online through search engines with over 90% of all clicks going to pages ranked on the first results page.

I suppose you could call this type of copywriting lacking in wit or creativity, even a little bit dull. But look at many print ads with witty headlines and read the body copy and you’ll often find facts in there that make you sit up.

One example. One of my favourite pieces in the 2011 edition of The Copy Book is a piece of direct mail sent by Bloomberg to media buyers for major airlines advertising Bloomberg TV. It was written by copywriter Steve Harrison and each letter was accompanied by a label-less champagne bottle.

It starts with some discussion of whether the champagne is the 1992 Dom Perignon or the great ’66. To find out you’ll have to give us a call. Or maybe ask a Bloomberg viewer, since they’re partial to good champagne, especially during long-haul flights.

And then come the killer facts – 96% of Bloomberg viewers took an air trip in the previous 12 months; 78% took between 3 and 5 flights; and 54% took over 6 flights.

Now if you’re the media buyer for an airline you’re starting to think we need to be sure we’re attracting these frequent flyers who love quaffing champagne whilst following the markets. Better get Bloomberg shown on your flights.

No surprises, then, that 22 interested media buyers came straight back to Bloomberg.




Old Masters II

Cadbury, like Guinness, Maxell Tapes, and Hamlet Cigars, have had some of the finest of all TV ads. The Smash Martians. How Do You Eat Yours? Gorilla plays drums. Girl eats Flake in highly suggestive manner. And, of course, the Milk Tray Man.

He first appeared in 1968 and last graced our screens in 2000. In his most recognisable form he was played by the Australian Gary Myers, the original Milk Tray Man from 1968 until 1984.

Over the years he leapt onto speeding trains, jumped downed bridges in his E-Type, outskied an avalanche, swam castle moats, drove his speedboat over a waterfall, hung from a cable car and dived into shark-infested waters armed with a knife between his teeth.

All to deliver a box of Milk Tray and a card embossed with his silhouette to his lady. There’s a full list of the ads here.

There’s so much to like and admire about the ads: a recognisable and memorable character, interesting visuals, arresting music, and a brilliant tagline.

The music was by composer Cliff Adams and entitled The Night Rider, the locations included exotic sites like Neuschwanstein, the cerulean waters off Gozo and Jamaica’s Blue Mountains, whilst the stunts were performed by the same guys who did the Bond films.

The creatives behind the series were from the agency Leo Burnett. The art director Norman Icke also did the Flake and Creme Egg ads, whilst the copywriter was Bob Stanners.

It was he who came up with the immortal line: ‘And all because the lady loves Milk Tray’ – which for fans of prosody is an iambic pentameter packed with alliteration and assonance and heavy stress at the end on Milk Tray. Which is a convoluted way of saying it just feels right.

The positioning is perfect too. Milk Tray: the chocolates to buy for men looking to indulge and impress their girlfriend or wife. And they’re the chocolates a certain type of man would choose – the Milk Tray Man, a smouldering, mysterious, dashing blend of Bond, Byron and Darcy in one.

Like The Economist ad there’s an implicit question in there: what sort of man are you? And since every man is a little boy at heart and never quite outgrows his vision of himself as Action Man he goes out and buys a box of Milk Tray.

That’s the brilliant thing about the ads. They manage to sail close to being silly and preposterous, whilst also tapping into that bit of the male psyche that is forever seven years old.

The Milk Tray Man entered popular culture. He featured on board games and was parodied by comedians like Spike Milligan. But by the end the ads became anaemic and dull.

Polo necks and death-defying stunts looked a little out of place in the era of Cool Britannia and the New Age Man of the new millennium.

Out went the machismo; in came more winsome-looking actors in lounge suits like mild-mannered off-duty management trainees in need of a copy of The Economist.

Old Masters I

This is about two of my favourite ads and how they work: part one is some thoughts on David Abbott’s great ad for The Economist, part two is on the Milk Tray Man ads. The former is a print ad, the other TV. But there’s a lot in common, too.

Both were the start of long-running, instantly recognisable campaigns. Both understood their target audience and, in essence, play on their vanity.

Buy the Economist and you’ll be smarter, more successful, more like the person you always thought you deserved to be.

Buy Milk Tray and you’ll be the apple of your girlfriend or wife’s eye.


In 1988 David Abbott of Abbott Mead Vickers created what’s become an iconic advert for The Economist magazine. It reads simply; ‘“I never read The Economist.” Management trainee. Aged 42.’

It’s just one of the great pieces of copy that Abbott created. He also wrote campaigns for Sainsbury’s, Volkswagen, the RSPCA, Chivas Regal whisky, and the J.R.Hartley Yellow Pages ad that’s since become part of everyday British culture.

The copy Abbott created set the standard for Economist ads which are still characterised by their wit and intelligence. And the white serif script on a red background, based on the magazine’s own masthead, became synonymous with Economist ads.

The ‘management trainee’ ad that works through implication and subtlety to convey the benefit of the magazine to prospective readers. Who reads the Economist? Well, the clever, the successful, those who are going places in life.

And it hangs a question out there – are you one of us or one of them? Well-informed and worth-knowing, or still stuck in a training scheme and going nowhere in life at 42?

Of course you’re the former. Better buy a copy.

I suppose you could object that the approach is more concerned with congratulating existing readers of the magazine for their sagacity rather than encouraging new readers. And some of the more recent ads do perhaps seem a tad self-satisfied, almost too clever by half.

The image of Brains from Thunderbirds grinning against the famous red background with no words is clever, but I can’t believe it helped to shift many copies.

Then again the Venn Diagram Economist ads added a new level of freshness to the familiar theme. You can have a look at them here on Dave Dye’s site. And here’s a 2012 radio ad that shows off the wit and light-touch of Abbott’s original.

And since David Abbott wrote the copy for that first ad sales of The Economist have gone from 70,000 to beyond 500,000, according to this BBC piece.

It remains one of the best-selling news magazines in the UK.