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40 Classic UK TV Advertising Campaigns Part 3

9th December 2021
Reading Time
12 minutes

Part 3: Coffee, cough sweets, dairy products and stock

21. Nescafé coffee (‘Coffee At Its Best’ song)

In the 1980s, faster-paced lifestyles boosted the consumption of instant coffee, which was seen as a useful modern convenience. Rival brands battled it out for dominance in the marketplace, and the frontrunner among the big brands was Nescafé, whose standard instant promised drinkers a 'special blend and roast'. It was further marketed with the tag-line 'coffee at its best', as incorporated into this lively American-style pop song:

'Nescafé! Nescafé! A better way to start your day!
Isn't it time that you woke up to a richer, smoother-tasting cup?
Start your day with Nescafé - coffee at its best!'

In this case, the last line was abbreviated in favour of a voice-over, but usualy the whole song was heard.

It is an example of a good, old-fashioned original advertising jingle that sets in memory and leaves no doubt about either the name of the brand or the qualities of the product. At the same time, the use of an actress representing an average middle-aged, middle-class British woman with a busy lifestyle is designed to appeal to modern working women and make them feel that Nescafé coffee first thing in the morning can give them a boost they need to get through their responsibilities of the day, at the same time as being very tasty to drink.

The messaging to 'start your day with Nescafé' was clearly aimed at encouraging viewers to make a regular habit of drinking the product every morning. Marketing does not get much more direct than this! Since those days, the advertising industry has increasingly moved away from direct sales messages to more indirect lifestyle messages, but the ways of old were very effective.

From 1987, Nescafé began to advertise its more upmarket Gold Blend instant more heavily on British television. First launched in 1965, Gold Blend was premium-priced and marketed with more aspirational lifestyle imagery suggestive of wealth and exclusivity. It has since become more popular than the original Nescafé instant.


22. Maxwell House coffee (‘Is Yours a Maxwell House?’)

In the 1980s, Maxwell House was the main rival to Nescafé in the British instant coffee marketplace. As much as Nescafé kept up its high-profile TV advertising campaign, Maxwell House felt it had to put in its own appearances to attract and retain drinkers.

Using the tagline 'Is Yours a Maxwell House?' the advertisers sought to create an image of their coffee being associated with a warm, cosy domestic environment. The accompanying song was relaxed and cutesy, in sharp contrast to the upbeat, energetic style of the Nescafé one.

Additionally, rather than focusing on the qualities of its coffee itself, Maxwell House was notably focusing singly on lifestyle and creating positive emotional associations with its product. Whether this was because executives recognised it as being a slightly less upmarket product that could not compete with the leading brand on taste alone or just because they felt its target market would appreciate the imagery of warmth and cosiness more than a review of the taste qualities, is difficult to know.


23. Red Mountain coffee (‘It’s like Ground Coffee taste without the Grind’ campaign)

Another brand of instant coffee available from British stores in the 1980s was Unilever's Red Mountain, which had first been established by Brooke Bond in 1981, before Unilever bought the company in 1984. In the UK instant coffee marketplace, it had a more marginal presence than Nescafé and Maxwell House and relatively limited brand recognition until the late 1980s, when a major TV advertising campaign thrust it into the limelight.

The advertising campaign, centred upon the slogan 'It's like ground coffee taste without the grind', promised in effect that it tasted as good as filter coffee made from ground coffee beans, with the advantage of being instant and therefore relatively hassle-free to prepare. (The slogan employed a corny pun on the colloquial use of 'a grind' to mean 'an undertaking requiring a lot of trouble and effort'.)

In this advert, a woman's two overbearing and rivalrous aunts drop in unexpectedly while she and her presumed partner (whom eagle-eyed Eastenders fans may recognise as a young Ross Kemp) are redecorating. Unable to use the filter coffee machine one aunt had bought her due to unfinished wiring, she improvises by mimicking the sounds of the machine while actually preparing Red Mountain instant coffee. With the aunts none the wiser, the advert implies that if you tasted Red Mountain blind, you would not know that you were drinking anything other than filter coffee.

This campaign positioned Red Mountain as a premium instant coffee that could compete on taste with allcomers, including Nescafé. It carved a substantial niche for the brand in the British market, making it one of the most popular instant coffees of the 1990s.

However, its fortunes have since waned. In 2000, Unilever sold off the rights to Red Mountain to another food group, Gold Crown Foods; six years later, it was again sold on to Typhoo, which relaunched it in 2009. It seems to have been quietly dropped from Typhoo's online shop since then, but remains available from Amazon UK in 2021.


24. Halls Mentho Lyptus

Halls Mentho Lyptus is a brand of cough sweets that is part of the range of cough sweets produced by Halls Brothers in Lancashire since the 1930s. In 1964, the company was taken over by American pharmceuticals company Warner-Lambert, which continued to own the entire range of Halls cough sweets until it was itself bought out in 2000. 

In the 1980s, during the Warner-Lambert ownership phase, these comical advertisements were used to advertise the soothing, healing qualities of the Mentho Lyptus brand. An amateur footballer called Ron is pictured undergoing physiotherapy while suffering from a nasty cold. The physiotherapist offers to ease his sore throat with Halls Mentho Lyptus, claiming that it has 'this special vapour action that penetrates right through your cold'. At this point, animated computer graphics cut in to give a visual demonstration of this, accompanied by vaguely reassuring sound effects suggestive of a fine, atomic-level physical activity. This demonstration seems to be aimed at persuading viewers that there is solid scientific research and reason behind the formulation of the product.

The physiotherapist then adds 'Soothe your throat and unblock your nose!' referring to the purported 'vapour action' of the sweets.

Looking remarkably sprightly as he gets up to leave, the patient then quips:

'I'll try it on the ref! Maybe it could unblock his eyesight. Hoo-huh!' [feigned laughter]

By 'ref', Ron is apparently referring to the local football referee who officiates at the matches in which he is accustomed to playing. It is implied by his joke that Ron often disagrees with said referee's decisions. Jokes aside, the general thrust of the messaging would appear to be that if you are an active sports enthusiast, or otherwise like to keep busy, Mentho Lyptus offers a quick fix that can considerably reanimate you in time for your next match or other important engagement.

The character Ron comes across notably as a very unpretentious, average sort of British bloke of his time, no intellectual but with a cheeky sense of humour, making him an approachable role model for similarly ordinary people. If someone straightforward that they can relate to is convinced of the efficacy of this product after just one try, why shouldn't they give it a go too? It was a form of marketing by setting an example for the public to imitate, albeit using an actor to play the example.


25. Vicks Sinex (Teacher in class made fun of by pupils for coldy voice sketch)

Also from the mid-1980s, this classic advertisement for another brand of cold remedy, Vicks Sinex, features a teacher suffering from a heavy cold that has affected his voice as he attempts to take the roll call in class, causing the children much visible merriment.

'Abrahabs? Adaps? Bartett?'

The third child responds: 'Bes, Bir!' in mocking imitation of the teacher's temporary speech impediment, inducing the class to erupt into general uproar.

This prompts the teacher to reach for his Vicks Sinex, and he sprays his nose with it surreptitiously out of view of his pupils, using the lid of his desk to conceal it. After this, his voice undergoes a dramatic instant transformation to perfectly crystal-clear tones.

'Barton, see me after school!' he exclaims with new-found confidence. He has regained his authority and let the cheeky boy know that there will be a detention and talking-to for him in retribution for his impudence.

The messaging is that if you use Vicks Sinex while suffering from a cold, you will not only feel better but also retain more of your power and position at work than you would do without it - and potentially avoid humiliation for good measure.

The marketers are using the psychology of fear of loss, including loss of face, to sell the benefits of the product.


26. Oxo cubes (Traditional British family sketch)

The OXO brand has been in continuous use to describe a meat extract with added salt since 1899. Until 1910, it was available only in liquid form, but in 1910 the Oxo stock cube was launched. It rapidly became a staple of British cookery, especially used to flavour roast meat dishes, casseroles or gravy.

In 1983, a TV advertising campaign featuring an average middle-class English family of four was launched to help keep Oxo cubes on the habitual cooking agenda of families the length and breadth of the country. The campaign ran a bit like a protracted soap opera over many years.

Each instalment portrayed the family eating a dinner or Sunday lunch based upon a meat dish flavoured with an Oxo cube. Usually, the mother cooked, the father, a man of few words, ate appreciatively while looking tired after work, and the children sat obediently and ate along with the parents. The somewhat stereotypical portrait of gender roles within a marriage would probably attract serious criticism on account of reinforcing the outmoded notion that cooking is a woman's job nowadays, but in the 1980s it was still close enough to reality for most to escape serious censure.

Occasionally, the parents would hint at their romantic interest in each other, while trying to hide it from their children, such as in the above example, when the mother enigmatically asks her husband "Remember Preston?" as though recalling a past romantic escapade of theirs at which a similar meal was eaten, and implying a desire to recreate that experience in the present day.

The messaging conveyed by this is that Oxo may be a conservative product, but it doesn't have to be boring and can even be part of a romantic meal.

The campaign continued into the 1990s, when attempts were made to update it by introducing more adventurous or modern elements.

In a memorable late episode (above), the boy in the family, now a teenager studying at university, brings home a vegetarian flat-mate, much to the bemusement of his conventional sister, who associates vegetarianism with the hippy culture of the 1960s, and the scorn of her traditional meat-eating father, who quips:

"I can't say I fancy a load of old lentils and beans either!"

However, the awkward situation is saved by the inclusion of a vegetarian Oxo cube (a relatively new variety at the time) in the meal being served. In spite of her prejudices, the boy's sister feels an instant attraction for her brother's vegetarian friend, which does not go unnoticed by her mother, prompting her to ask: 'How's your pulse?' (a pun on the earlier reference to pulses as food).

The implication of this twist to the campaign was that in spite of its traditional values oriented towards meat-based dishes, Oxo was a brand that had changed with the times and now embraced vegetarianism (an increasingly popular trend in the UK from the late 1980s onwards) and included vegetarians and not just traditional meat-eaters.


27. Bisto gravy (song)

Bisto, a rival stock product to Oxo especially oriented towards gravy-making, was first introduced in powdered form in 1908, with a granulated form belatedly following in 1979. It was advertised in the mid-1980s using a catchy song featuring the punchline 'Never in a month of Sundays!' - a traditional British expression of incredulity voiced by those who don't believe something will ever happen, but one that blends ironically well with the fact that British families traditionally serve roast meat with gravy for Sunday lunch.

In the context of the depiction of a family with three young children, various scenarios in which something can be expected never to happen are elucidated, including the prospect of the lazy older boy in the family getting out of bed.

The song concludes, by way of contrast with these impossible scenarios:

"Still, there's one thing they won't miss out on in a month of Sundays,
'Cause Bisto browns, seasons, thickens with a stir!
No wonder it's the one that they prefer.
You'll never put the 'Ahh' in 'gravy' without Bisto,
'Cause you can't beat Bisto in a month of Sundays!"

It is not exactly high poetry, and parts of the meter seem rushed to the point that the words are not always easy to hear. However, the messaging that Bisto is unbeatable at making gravy, and that you should therefore not even consider switching to a rival brand, is clear and to the point.

Compared with the Oxo family, the Bisto family comes across as being less obviously middle-class. The style of advertising, with the upbeat, lively sing-along song, seems designed to appeal more to working-class families, suggesting a conscious effort at market positioning in this direction.

The previous generation of Bisto commercials run in the earlier 1980s featured the different punchline 'You can't kid a Bisto kid!' but was also oriented around a traditional working-class family.

Like Oxo, Bisto would go on to embrace non-beef alternative formulae in order to move with the times and survive as a relevant brand, such as chicken and eventually vegetarian gravy granules. 


28. Milk ('Nice Cold, Ice Cold Milk' song)

In the early 1980s, the National Dairy Council, a British organisation created in 1920 to promote milk consumption in the UK, invested heavily in television advertising to this end.

Its long-running campaign of the early 1980s featured this simple comical song performed in a light rock'n'roll style:

'Milk comes in a bottle [... inaudible... ]
And it got minerals and vitamins,
And it got a lovely body to keep a body fit!
Milk has got a... lotta bottle!
Milk has got a... lotta bottle!
Milk has got a... lotta bottle!
Nice, cold, ice cold milk!'

The song, as heard here, was performed in a casually vigorous manner by singers who sounded more like average football fans than professional vocalists.

The inclusion in the video of an elderly lady voicing indignation at the line about bodies being kept fit and the dancers dancing to it was meant to provoke laughter. It played on the realisation of a gulf between the sensibilities of the more conservative older generations and more liberal younger generations where permissiveness of discussion about and the display of bodies was concerned.

Nowadays, the British public might find the relevant line of the song and the use of all-female dancers to accompany it in the first version shown offensive for an entirely different reason, that of sexism. However, the second version that follows it, which was perhaps a reaction against negative feedback from the first, instead featured a group of men in towels in a sauna, which the elderly lady finds equally shocking.

The line 'It got a lovely body to keep a body fit' is innuendo, spoken over a shot of female dancers in tight outfits (in the first version). The reference to the 'body' of milk is somewhat nonsensical; however, it could refer to the substance of the milk itself being healthy and nutrient-dense. Again, this level of blatant objectification of women would certainly be unacceptable in an advert broadcast nowadays, but such were the times.

The phrase 'lotta bottle' was itself used as a double-entendre, after the expression 'bottle' meaning 'courage', implying that milk essentially has a lot of courage - in addition to being wrapped in glass bottles. Throughout the series of adverts above, people are shown doing activities that require a 'lotta bottle', such as skydiving, a woman playing rugby with a team of men, and enthusiastically supporting a sports team while surrounded by opposition fans. The implication was that drinking milk would give you more vigour and therefore also courage.

The slogan 'Nice, cold, ice cold milk!' was designed to impress upon viewers that milk could also be tasty and refreshing, especially when served cold straight from the refrigerator.

The overall messaging was that milk was both healthy as part of an active lifestyle and delicious to drink, as well as being suitable for all ages.

The campaign was replaced in the mid-1980s by one featuring a rather more rhythmically clipped song based around the line 'Everybody's body needs a bottle stop!'


29. Anchor Butter (‘We are Lucky Cows’ song)

In a marketplace increasingly dominated by cut-price alternatives such as margarines, there was a strong drive in the 1980s for traditional butter producers to defend their market position by emphasising the natural credentials of their products.

This example from 1989 was produced for Anchor Butter, and sets out to demonstrate that the cows used to make it live free, happy lives, by portraying them as grazing on grass in the open air. This concept is further encapsulated in the accompanying song:

We are lucky cows!
We chew the cud and browse!
'Cause we're eating up our greens,
It makes our butter taste supreme!

We girls all do state that year-round grass makes butter great!
Anchor... (from green, green grass)
... Butter (from green, green grass)!

While this is going on, the lyrics are displayed on the screen, and a tennis ball bounds betweem them, landing on successive syllables on the beat. It then strangely jumps into the field and is kicked away by one of the cows, creating a thoroughly surreal immersive spectacle, before returning to mark the rhythm of the lyrics once more.

The main reason why this advertisement was effective was that the song was catchy and easy to remember, at the same time as creating a positive message around the brand with regard to both the taste of the finished product and the welfare of the animals producing it.

Other butter producers such as Lurpak (with its army of animated men appearing to be fashioned from butter) have taken different but equally creative approaches to their campaigning.


30. Dairylea cheese (Kids Will Eat It Till the Cows Come ‘Ome)

This advertisement for Dairylea Cheese Spread from the 1980s is marketed firmly at children, as evidenced by the use of a chorus of schoolchildren to sing the lively song to which it is set.

We are kids who love our cheese,
And we all love our Dairylea!
So every lunchbox in the land
Has a triangle!
If you've ever wondered how you get triangles from a cow,
You need buttermilk and cheese, and a little bit of time!
For spreading buttermilk and cheese,
You can't do better than choose these!
They taste just great; they're good for you!
That's a triangle!

It is notably reminiscent in its tune and enthusiastic delivery of the song used to promote Nestlé's Milky Bar by evoking a 'Milky Bar Kid' who would hand out Milky Bars to all children in his vicinity.

The long-running brand slogan follows: 'Kraft Dairylea - Kids'll Eat It Till the Cows Come Home!'

This incorporates a reference to the common saying 'till the cows come home' meaning 'persistently, for a very long time'. At the same time, it implies that it is a good food for children to eat during the day time (such as for a packed lunch) when cows are usually out grazing in the fields, and makes a pun on its origins in cows' milk.

The messaging is focused on Dairylea being portrayed as both healthy and tasty, and especially appealing for children to enjoy, in part thanks to the fun triangular shape in which it is wrapped. The primary market was parents wanting happy, well-fed children.


Continue to Part 4: Non-Food Products and Services

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