A Copywriting Blog

Jottings on Ads and Copywriting

Category: Beer, Beer, Beer…

Carling Black Label – The Canadian Lager Sold by Adventurous Squirrels


Carling is the best-selling lager in the UK. Does that mean its ads were the best as well?

Well, possibly.

In truth the ads are rather simple but effective. Subject of the ad comes into show. Seems pretty normal. Then does something amazing, slightly bonkers, or solves a dilemma. Voiceover comes on, tagline is shown, or character says…

I’ll bet he drinks Carling Black Label.

‘It’s the pint you like, gives you that bit more, it’s Carling Black Label.’

It’s not a million miles from the before and after structure of the Heineken ads. But it gets the message across pretty well, that Carling’s the stuff to be drinking to get your juices flowing.

Wright Collins Rutherford Scott were the agency. 1985 was the year. And the tagline was originally written for a pitch to the Milk Marketing Board and read ‘I’ll bet he drinks a lot of milk’. They didn’t get the account so recycled the line for Carling Black Label – or plain Carling as it’s been known since 1997.

Carling, weirdly enough, is a Canadian brand that’s been sold here since the 50s. And since the late 80s it’s been leading the British beer market with its promise of a fuller flavour than any other lager.

The famous Dambusters ad was shown in 1989, one of several to feature the comedy duo Stephen Frost and Mark Arden. They’re also in the ads that allude to and play on the Old Spice Surfer ad and the Levi’s 501 Laundrette skit.

Some of the series are a bit creaky. But there’s some fun stuff in there too, especially the squirrel doing Mission Impossible…


Foster’s – All the Way from Manchester, Australia

Australian for Lager.

Which is strange considering most Australians don’t touch the stuff and the beer they sell in the UK is made in that part of Australia known as Manchester.

Foster’s was started in Australia in 1887, by two American brothers as it happens. But over in Aus they prefer Victoria Bitter and Carlton Draught to Foster’s.

Over here, though, it’s second only to Carling among the best-selling lagers. It was first imported to the UK in 1971 and by the 80s was being advertised by that paragon of Australian masculinity Paul Hogan.

Which is my way of suggesting that there may be a bit of crass stereotyping going on, but that it’s crass stereotyping that works.

Our Paul, the fair dinkum embodiment of the classic Aussie larrikin, finds himself in various unlikely scenarios over in Pom-land  which cause humorous misunderstandings and generate quips before he settles himself down with a pint of the Amber Nectar.

A decade later Foster’s were using the line ‘He who drinks Australian, thinks Australian.’

These ads aren’t a million miles from the concept behind the Castlemaine ad – that Australians value their beer more than anything else, even if it’s the life of their kidnapped wife in this case.

Tetley’s – Heading Smoothly into Obscurity

Poor old Tetley’s. Time was when the stuff was ubiquitous. They once had a thousand pubs in Yorkshire alone and another thousand across the nation with the huntsman’s head logo beaming out invitingly at drinkers.

Back in 1911 they even used Harry Houdini in a marketing stunt. He had to escape from a metal box filled with Tetley’s – only he couldn’t and had to be rescued.

In the 80s Tetley’s grew to be a world leader in the production of cask ale. Even into the 90s they were market leaders in the UK ale sector. Until, that is, the rise of John Smith’s. Sales started to decline in the later 90s and into the new millennium.

They were bought out by Carlsberg in 1998 and the Leeds Brewery, home to the beer of Joshua Tetley since 1822, was closed in 2011 as production moved elsewhere. They’ve still got a notable presence in Rugby League sponsorship, but it’s a far cry from the old days.

As for adverts, they’ve had some interesting ones. Here’s one from the early 90s that sees a man astounding his wife by doing some ironing.

The ad stresses a particular stand-out quality of the beer and develops the copy from that – in this case its smoothness, just as the Boddington’s adverts focused on creaminess, and the Heineken ads concentrate on how refreshing the beer is. It’s one way of positioning your beer in a market that’s packed with very similar products.

And by the end of the 90s we have the ‘Smoothly Does It’ campaign run by Saatchi and Saatchi. The gag becomes the Tetley’s drinker finds a smooth way to find a solution to a problem, whether it’s making his way to the pub through a crowd using his soggy dog:

Or, making sure his girlfriend doesn’t catch the bouquet at a wedding by asking her to hold on to his pint of Tetley’s.

They’re neat, witty ads that ran into the noughties.

Problem was, perhaps, that Tetley’s was being overtaken by market forces beyond their control. And not even the greatest of ads could save them..

Stella Artois – Success Can Be Bad for Your Health

Stella Artois were using film-style, epic ads that cost hundreds of thousands of pounds to make nearly a decade before the celebrated Guinness ads.

Stella Artois was a problem for advertisers. At 5.2% ABV it’s one of the strongest lagers on the market. That meant extra duty to be paid making for a higher retail price.

In the 70s Collett Dickenson Pearce had the Stella account. The Frank Lowe left and took Stella with him as a client for his new agency, Lowe Howard-Spink in 1981.

He turned the disadvantage of the higher price into a positive with the tagline ‘Reassuringly Expensive’, used in print through the 80s. You pay more, so you must be getting a superior product, right?

The line was actually an old one buried in some long copy and re-cycled by Lowe – just as the Carling copy came from an old pitch for milk advertising.

Then we come to the 90s. Or rather to the 1986 French film Jean de Florette, the story of rustic Provencal peasants. One of the main creatives at Lowe saw the film and had the idea of using similar scenes to advertise Stella Artois.

So a Belgian brand that brewed its beer in the UK ended up selling itself as French.

The resulting ads were tiny films in themselves, beautifully shot, stylish and impressive scenes of French peasant life – ideal for selling the premium, reassuringly expensive Stella Artois.

Like the Heineken ads, the first research feedback suggested that the campaign wouldn’t work. They were in French, had no huge gags, and were, for ads, quite long narratives.

But Whitbread, who handled Stella’s distribution in the UK, persevered. And after the first ad in 1992 they ran until around 2007, with the old tagline ‘Reassuringly Expensive’.

In sequence the ads were Jean de Florette, Monet, Good Samaritan, Red Shoes, Last Orders, Returning Hero, The Good Doctor, Devil’s Island, Pilot, Whip Around, and Cyclists.

In each case a scene from French provincial life, with its slow rhythms, illustrates the value of Stella Artois by showing what people were willing to give just for a taste.

Lowe picked up countless D&AD Awards, Cannes Lions and so on from the advertising industry.

And the ads helped to transform sales of Stella. In the first 13 years of the campaign Stella sales were reckoned to be up by 500%. Brand Republic reported in 2004 that Stella in 1990 had sold 600,000 barrels, and had now reached 3.6 million a year.

A Stella executive interviewed in the same piece suggests the reason the ads worked was because they appealed to all types of drinker – both average Joe football fan and middle-class hipsters.

But this has to be nonsense, doesn’t it? What sticks out in the ads is how arty they are, how far removed from the blokey world of FHM they seem. It’s an upmarket, cinematic campaign aimed at upmarket drinkers.

What attracted Stella to those who perhaps didn’t appreciate the fine French cinematic feel of the ads was the strength of the stuff, at 5.2%, and the fact it became available in supermarkets in bulk at discount prices.

And Stella ended up a victim of its own huge sales.

What was advertised as a high-end, smart lager ended up the favourite of binge-drinkers nationwide, prized for its capacity to get you smashed as soon as possible. It became known to the press as ‘Wife-Beater’, associated with binge drinking and yobs on the high street shouting at strangers.

And that meant a major image problem for the beer. By 2007 sales were dipping. The next ads ditched the name Stella and ‘Reassuringly Expensive’ was retired for a re-brand.

Castlemaine XXXX – Your Beer or Your Wife?

Australians wouldn’t give a XXXX for anything else.

The line is now to be found in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations.

It was created by copywriter James Lowther of Saatchi and Saatchi, an Old Etonian and Oxford graduate who subsequently worked on a sheep station in Australia before entering advertising.

Castlemaine was launched in the UK in 1984 – brewed here under licence, of course – and the ad dates to 1985, with the line used in print and TV campaigns.

In truth it’s a fairly simple concept – very similar to that behind the Stella Artois ads of a decade later – that the beer is so good that you’d be willing to give up something else that’s precious to you.

With the Castlemaine ad this concept takes a distinctly Australian flavour – or an English perception of the typical Aussie male, more dedicated to saving his beer than his wife.

And just to show there’s nothing new under the advertising sun, have a look at this later Foster’s ad about a chap who asks his kidnapped wife where his golf clubs are rather than helping to save her…

He who thinks Australian, drinks Australian. Or so they say.

Thanks to the ads Castlemaine rivalled their fellow Australian brand Foster’s in the 80s.

Fast forward to today and their fortunes have diverged massively.

Castlemaine was withdrawn from the UK market in 2013.

Should’ve kept up with the advertising.

Courage – Pure Genius, or was that Guinness?

Whenever anyone says that the Guinness ads of the late 90s are the finest ever made for a beer I always think of the black and white Courage Best ads made by Boase Massimi Pollitt.

They’re just as good and original, even if they don’t have the same epic feel as the Guinness ads.

Courage Best has been one of the best-selling pints in the UK for decades, made originally in London and then Reading. So far as I can tell the ads were made for the Courage heartland in the South.

Dave Trott came across Chas and Dave and thought they’d be a good fit to use on a beer commercial.

He wrote the scripts that took Chas and Dave songs and turned them into hymns to the virtues of Courage Best, whilst John Webster brought the idea of using old pub photos and scenes. The first ads were shown in 1980, I think.

Remember a pint of Best? Courage do.

Black and white. Chas and Dave. Old pubs. Proper beer. Unpretentious, good old-fashioned real beer with a real history and pedigree behind it.

This is the classic formula for advertising ale. It’s repeated in the John Smith’s ‘No Nonsense’ campaign, and you can see it too in the Boddingtons ads.

The Courage ads had people like Hugh Hudson directing them, and Robert Krasker of El Cid and The Third Man fame doing the cinematography.

In all I can find five versions, all of them on YouTube: Gertcha, Rabbit, Down to Margate, Beats All the Rest, and Cinema…


Beer, Beer, Beer

After posting on the Guinness and Murphy’s ads I thought I’d continue looking at how beer in general has been sold on British TV.

I’ve got a series of posts to come on individual beers, but I’ll start with a few general observations…


Guaranteed: Beer Feeds Your Creativity

To win a brief selling beer must have been like manna from heaven for advertisers.

For a start budgets have tended to be high.

And plenty of scientific testing has shown that punters can’t distinguish between individual beer brands. So they’re unlikely to be basing their choice of drinks on flavour.

This is where advertising brings its added value to the product. Creating a brand with a bit of buzz around it becomes vital. And that gives a lot of room to the advertisers to let their creativity run wild.

And the key beer demographic encourages the use of gags, humour, and wit. Beer companies need to be hitting the male 18-40 group with their marketing – a group typically interested in comedy.

So there’s licence to go for it for creative directors, art directors and copywriters.


Recurring Traits…

Looking through beer ads you see certain structures and traits stick out.

Taglines are king.

Good Things Come to Those Who Wait. Reassuringly Expensive. Refreshes the Parts Other Beers Cannot Reach. I’ll Bet He Drinks Carling Black Label. Australian for Lager. The Cream of Manchester. Australians Wouldn’t Give a XXXX For Anything Else. No Nonsense. Remember a Pint of Best? Courage Do. Follow the Bear. Smoothly Does It. Probably the Best Lager in the World…

Films have given plenty of inspiration to beer ads.

Holsten Pils ads took the collage techniques of Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid. Stella Artois took their lead from Jean de Florette.

The classic before-and-after structure is much in evidence, too.

Tired and weary? Try our product. Now look at you go! It’s the basic structure behind the Heineken and Carling Black Label ads.

Or you sell on the beer on one quality. The creaminess of Boddingtons. The smoothness of Tetley’s. The northern no-nonsense of John Smith’s. The London-ness of Courage. Take one quality and go for a walk with it.

Or you stress the worth of your beer. What would you give for a pint? Your wife in the case of Castlemaine. A whole cartload of beautiful flowers in Stella’s first big ad of the 90s.


Does Lager Have to be Marketed as Foreign?

To sell ale stress the ‘realness’ of the product. It’s real beer with real heritage. Uncomplicated, no nonsense, genuine beer.

To sell lager, so the cliché goes, give it spurious Continental or foreign roots, even though it’s made down the road in Manchester or South Wales.

It’s true, in part. Kronenbourg got into trouble in 2014 about their ‘Farmers in Alsace‘ ad with Eric Cantona as the beer was made in the UK.

When Whitbread tried to launch a British lager known as GB it flopped.

And Stella, Foster’s, Castlemaine were all made in the UK despite advertisements that ran on their foreign roots – even if they say ‘Brewed in the UK’ in the corner the viewer is effectively part of a game of willing make-believe.

But the most successful lager of all, Carling, curiously enough a Canadian brand, used British comedians and good-old British dry wit in their ads. And their beer sold better than any other.


Does Any of this Actually Work?

The huge question. I’ll try and look at each case individually in the posts that follow.

Certainly beer ads seep into popular culture. Just think of ‘Top Bombing‘ and ‘Ave It‘.

And according to some accounts creative advertising was responsible for changing the nation’s drinking habits away from ale and towards lager in the 70s.

There’s a counter-argument to that, and I’ll look at it in post on Heineken.

But the rise of beers like John Smith’s, Boddingtons, and Stella Artois in the 90s has to be down, at least partly, to their huge ad campaigns, even if there are factors like pricing, distribution and promotions to consider too.

And once the ad campaigns stop in many cases the beers wither and die. You’ll struggle to find Boddingtons these days, or Hofmeister or Castlemaine in the UK, despite their once famous ads.

It’s even possible that great advertising contributed to their fall. If you become the fashionable drink on the back of cool ads, you have to be prepared for the drinkers to one day move on to the next fad.

So let’s begin –  with the wonderful Courage ads….