Martians, mushy peas, leprechauns (and gin)

An awful lot of advertising is graceless and uninviting. But very occasionally an advert has the cheek to be enjoyable and funny

Standpoint Magazine

Gather round, I have a tale to tell. Bravery; imagination; invention; dragons; martians; mushy peas. It’s the story of an advertising campaign that ran in the early Nineties. No, wait . . . come back! Don’t go! It’s okay, I understand. Who gives a fig about advertising?

By and large, ads have always been annoying little flies, buzzing in your ear and refusing to go away, but their remorseless droning has become especially tiresome since the rise of the internet. Uninvited yabbering that doesn’t even have the good grace to engage you with any wit, or charm. (No wonder ad-blockers are some of the most popular apps in the world.) Digital technology has prompted advertising to lose both its soul and its creativity, as brands and platforms watch your
every move and interrupt you ceaselessly.

The truth of the matter, though, is that very occasionally adverts can be enjoyable and memorable. I know, it sounds crazy, but it’s true. In the real world, people look at whatever interests them, and sometimes—once every Halley’s Comet—that’s an ad. This is the tale of one such campaign for Gordon’s Gin. You shouldn’t trust my opinion, mind, because I wrote it, but history does seem to show that for a while there, a bunch of curious and colourful ads wheedled their way into the affections of a large slug of the UK public.

The ads were simple, cheeky and innocent. They were so clearly not trying to be cool or stylish, or slick, or expensive that people seemed to embrace them with genuine relish.

In 1990, I was a short-trousered junior copywriter working for Leo Burnett, the ad agency that had been asked to pitch for the prestigious Gordon’s Gin account. Gordon’s were looking for a new ad campaign that would shake up the gin’s fusty old image. The message proposition that our strategy department wrote was clichéd nonsense (“Gordon’s puts the fizz into life”), so my art director and I shot the strategy guy with the agency handgun and decided to just do something funny and well branded. (He was fine; just a flesh wound. Advertising back then was a wild and lawless place and he knew the risks.) Amusingly, by the end of the first morning we’d cracked it. Equally amusingly, the idea just popped into my head while having a pee and staring mindlessly at the blank white wall in front of me.

“Okay . . . Gordon’s are famous for having a green bottle. How about we have an idea based solely on the colour green? Isn’t there an old visual joke where there’s a completely black picture but it’s actually a picture of ‘A BLACK CAT IN A COAL
CELLAR AT MIDNIGHT’? What if we used green instead? After all, Gordon’s is so well-known for being green that the colour itself could probably symbolise a glass of it. So, if you just saw a big green picture, couldn’t that be seen as a picture of ‘SOMETHING GREEN DRINKING A GORDON’S IN A GREEN PLACE’? Hang on, this could work.”

And so, two weeks later, this thoroughly unprofessional idea was presented to the unsuspecting marketing folk at Gordon’s. The ads looked nothing like gin advertising. Or any advertising. No beautiful people enjoying the product. In fact, no product. No lifestyle. No production values. No exquisite photography. No glamorous location. No chilled glasses. No clinking ice, or sparkling lemon, or perfect, specially trained bubbles. No, just a big expanse of green, and a single headline:

A CHAMELEON ON A SNOOKER TABLE NEXT TO A COOL Gordon’s & Tonic WITH A SLICE OF LIME.

A DRAGON PLAYING BOWLS WITH BRUSSELS SPROUTS AND DRINKING A COOL Gordon’s & Tonic THROUGH A HOSE.

A SNOWMAN HOLDING AN ICE-COLD Gordon’s &
Tonic IN JUNE.

ENGLAND’S GREEN AND PLEASANT LAND AND A NOT DISSIMILAR Gordon’s & Tonic.

“WAITER, THERE’S A GREENFLY HAVING A Gordon’s & Tonic IN MY ASPARAGUS SOUP.”

THREE HOUSES AND A COOL Gordon’s & Tonic ON
REGENT STREET.
(Clue: Monopoly.)

Silly, yes, but insanely well branded, and refreshingly unpretentious for a quality spirit. And, as playful as they were, they still treated the viewer with intelligence, and trusted that they’d understand what we were up to. Even so, it was risky and we were half expecting to be kicked out of the room, but our brave little green idea went down a storm and we won the account. (It helped that one particular client, after seeing the ads, simply couldn’t stop laughing. Her colleagues had to eventually tell her to shut up—which just made her laugh even more.)

A few weeks later, the launch campaign ran. Posters; magazine ads and a cinema commercial that stuck two green fingers up at the sometimes pompous and self-regarding world of advertising. Normally, premium spirits use cinema to showcase a bespoke, swanky, million-pound brand commercial. Our Gordon’s spot cost £7,000 and basically just showcased me arsing about in a sound studio. I used my voice and hands to make strange noises and create three imaginary scenes, where the sounds played over a green screen before a caption came up and revealed what you were seeing.

A MARTIAN RELAXING WITH A COLD Gordon’s & Tonic IN A BATH OF MUSHY PEAS.

A LEPRECHAUN IN WELLINGTON BOOTS CARRYING A COOL Gordon’s & Tonic ROUND A MAZE.

ROBIN HOOD ENJOYING A REFRESHING Gordon’s & Tonic AMIDST A PLAGUE OF FROGS.

I was in a cinema one day when the commercial came on. (It’s always a bit scary when you see your ad with a cinema audience around you. Will there be a reaction? Or will no-one give a damn about your piddly little effort that obviously isn’t as hilarious as you thought.) Luckily, the audience laughed and giggled, and when the last part finished . . . they applauded. Blimey! They didn’t do that for the film that followed, whatever it was; but they did for my ad.

The campaign began to get noticed. Newspapers wrote unprompted articles of approval. Punch magazine created a variety of political versions. And both agency and client received regular letters of enthusiastic praise from the fabled “man in the street”. (Which suggests that today’s Tweeters would have had a ball.) As the ads started to “mature” into new ideas that used other colours and basic shapes to make simple pictures, we received a particularly remarkable letter from a man living near Kidderminster:

Dear Sir, I have a rather fine but dilapidated house dating back 600 years, with Tudor and Georgian additions. I’m just getting the stairs and hall sorted and decorated, and have an enormous blank wall. The idea occurs that a modern poster on the wall would be a splendid way to add something of the present day to the house, and there is no doubt that the best ad I have seen is your gorgeous green and red “Bloody Mary” poster, hoarding size, which would be a talking point for perhaps the next 200 years. Can you help me in acquiring an enormous proper version of the poster advertising your much-appreciated gin?

Strewth. Someone wanted to stick a life-size copy of our 48-sheet poster, measuring 20ft x 10ft, onto a wall inside their home. Well, alrighty then. So, we made it happen. (I wonder if it’s still there?)

After five years and 150 playful ads, the campaign came to a close, replaced by something much more glossy and ho-hum. But we’d done our job; we’d actually made people look forward to seeing an ad. And we’d also done the job we were being paid for: sales of Gordon’s stood steady during those five years while every other gin brand’s declined. (In the Nineties, gin was the forgotten spirit; it was vodka that ruled the roost.)

Interestingly, throughout its whole run, the advertising industry hated the campaign. “It’s just not appropriate for the brand,” they spluttered as one, with a large stick (-in-the-mud) up their arse. Oh, and in the interest of balance, there was one other person who was very much not a fan.

I was in a London taxi one day and the driver asked me what I did for a living. “Oh, I’m in advertising,” I said. “It’s my job to dream up the ads.”

“Oh, yeah, guv? What ads might I have seen, then?”

I was just about to casually mention a certain green gin campaign, when he added, “As long as it’s not those bladdy Gordon’s gin ads in the bladdy cinema! I bladdy hate them!”

A word of advice, my friend: if you’re ever looking to buy a house outside London, don’t go and see a big 600-year-old Tudor and Georgian pile near Kidderminster. You wouldn’t like it. 

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