Wednesday, 30 November 2011

What is the greatest topical ad of all time?

A sexy blonde in a Santa outfit with two perfectly placed advent calendar doors over her breasts.
Hmmm. Christmas topical ads.

For some reason I remembered this the other day. It got me thinking, apart from desperately wanting to open those doors, what goes into making a cracking topical ad?

Lynx 'Advent Calendar' by BBH

Timing? Wit? The detail the team have gone to?
Naked flesh?

It's possibly all these. But the most important thing is a great campaign to bounce your idea off. 

Lynx, Nike, Marmite, Kit Kat to mention just a few, all have fantastic campaigns that can quickly and seamlessly accommodate a topical ad.

Whereas brands that haven't committed to building a distinct campaign will always struggle.

So what is the greatest topical ad of them all?

If the conversations I've had in the past week are anything to go by, that's a big question. It started out as a bit of banter and ended up with people sending reams of links, stills and wandering in with old copies of D&AD and even topical ads that hadn't been made but lie dormant in the bottom draw.

Well I'm going to go against protocol here and jump straight in with the winner.

Nike 'Arsena' by W+K

It's genius. A perfect fit between Nike and the Arsenal team of 2003 / 2004. It ran the day after they'd remained undefeated for a whole season. It is beautiful in concept and execution. For such an historic achievement it's brilliantly humble. I remember seeing it as a strip ad in the Evening Standard.  Only once. But it was seared into my brain. Like Sir John Heg says, you don't need to run an ad to death spending millions on media. If you run an ad just once and it's good enough it'll work (I'm sure he said it much more elegantly than that).

As a Man Utd fan it pains me to praise such an ad. And yes, I am aware in the history of topical ads, no one has devoted more time and effort than the footy obsessed creative. And being our national sport, why not?

There were other contenders, see below. And others that couldn't be traced - most notably a very old press ad for Sainsbury's on budget day. Norman Lamont coming out of No. 10 with a Sainsbury's carrier bag with its then endline 'Good food costs less at Sainsbury's'.  The headline read 'No surprises so far.'

Amid the banter and debate, there was consensus that there is a difference between a topical ad and a tactical ad.

A pure topical ad is of the moment. An event occurs. A creative writes the ad in the shower / on the bog / on the way to work. And then he/she starts desperately trying to get it approved by CD, client and placed in the media for the next morning. A nice recent example is this bicycle ad for the riots, from those lovely chaps at BETC London.

Micycle 'Looters' by BETC London

The ad appeared in the press the next day with seeming ease, but I bet there were a whole lot of people paddling madly under the water to get it done.

By their nature topical ads are reactive. Something unusual has to happen, such as Britney Spears' bizarre 55-hour marriage (Did she fart in bed? Did he refuse to take his socks off?), so that Lynx could jump on it and create a brilliant press ad the following day that rightly found itself in D&AD.

Lynx 'Britney' by BBH

Tactical ads feel a little more planned in their nature. A good example is the 'St Wayne' poster by W+K for Nike before the South Africa World Cup. A shoot was planned, bit of retouching done and lots of lovely media booked. It was the best thing the Roo managed that summer. 

Nike 'St Wayne' by W+K

And the online version where Rooney is holding Ronaldo's head was even better and was probably more of a topical ad... of the tactical ad. Or was it a viral ad of the tactical ad?

So the contenders, in a very loose order....

'Chris Christmas' from Mother

Polo 'Stamp' by JWT

Ministry of Defence in Colombia 'Operation Christmas' by LoweSSP3 Bogota

Nike 'Y2K Jogger' by W+K

T-Mobile 'Royal Wedding' viral by Saatchi & Saatchi

Conservative Party 'Labour isn't working' by Saatchi & Saatchi

Speechbreaker by Lean Mean Fighting Machine

Schweppes 'Sven' by Mother

Saatchi in-house ad when the Berlin Wall came down

Hamlet 'Botham' by CDP
Beefy Botham was caught smoking hash. The next day Hamlet ran this. 
Can you imagine trying to convince a client to do that today...

Land Rover Discovery 'Conditions' by RKCR / Y&R

Hamlet 'C4 Ident' by CDP

18-30 'Bush' by Saatchi & Saatchi

Marmite 'Jose' by DDB

FHM 'Beckham' by BBH

And finally back to the beginning. Is this the greatest Christmas stunt of all time? Father Christmas being turned red and white by Coke in the fifties.

Thanks everyone who chipped in, esp Henry at the NMA.
Please feel free to agree / disagree or offer up your own topical ads...


  1. 'Arsena' is cracking, and I'm not just saying that because I'm a season ticket holder at Ashburton Grove. But are you SURE you didn't choose it because your team ended the run? Also, given the quality of your examples, maybe clients should abandon 'strategy' in favour of tactical and topical executions, particularly given that so many ads based on 'strategy' end up getting lost in anonymity...

  2. Excellent.
    I had an idea based on this story
    'For all your odd breakouts' (Clearasil)
    Btw did you ever own your own company?
    Hugh, Pugh, Barney McGrew, Cuthbert, Dibble and Grubb?
    P.S. Up the reds

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  4. Sorry for the late response and thanks for comments.
    I'd actually forgotten United had finished the run of Arsena - v poor of me esp as I'm fully plastic all the way from Oxford - although i did live there for 5 years when we won f*** all
    At school i was teased with 'Hugh, Pugh, Barney Magrew'...but get called far worse now.
    And yes - Rob - e.n.d.s.f.r.i was genius
    Will be more prompt in future