With the birth of ITV in 1955, came commercials – or ”natural breaks” as they were originally known.
The very first TV commercial in Britain was broadcast on 22 September 1955 at 8:12 PM and was for Gibbs SR toothpaste.
Viewers saw a tube of toothpaste embedded in a block of ice (real ice had to be abandoned in favour of plastic, in fact), a lady by the name of Meg Smith brushing her teeth “up and down and round the gums” and heard BBC presenter Alex Mackintosh declare (with immaculate BBC diction) “It’s tingling fresh. It’s fresh as ice. It’s Gibbs SR toothpaste”.
The running water in the advert – 400 gallons of it – had to be siphoned into the gents’ lavatory at Pathe Studios in Wardour Street, where the commercial was made.
Someone pressed the button too soon and part of the ‘leader’ (the length of preliminary film that gives a visual countdown in seconds) was televised first.
The advert was chosen to be first by drawing lots with 23 opening night offerings, including Guinness, Surf, National Benzole, Brown & Polson custard, Lux, Summer County margarine, Batchelor’s peas, Shredded Wheat, Crosse & Blackwell and Brillo. But probably the best commercial of 1955 was the animated promotion of Murray Mints – created by John Halas and his wife Joy Batchelor – where the Murraymints characters were guardsmen in bearskins.
The following is a selection of memorable British TV advertisements from the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s.
Food & Drink
BIRDSEYE FISH FINGERS
Oddly, TV started advertising frozen foods before most houses in the UK actually had refrigerators. In fact, only certain shops had facilities to store frozen food.
THE BROOKE BOND CHIMPS
First appearing to promote PG Tips in 1956, the Brooke Bond chimps have become TV legends, and the famous commercial with chimp removal men grappling with a piano has been screened thousands of times.
More than 40 personalities have provided the voices, among them Stanley Baxter, Bruce Forsyth, Irene Handl, Bob Monkhouse and Kenneth Williams.
The very first chimp commercial was set in an elegant country house and showed an immaculately dressed ”boy” and ”girl” sitting at a Regency table and drinking tea from a silver service in dainty china cups.
The voice-over came from Peter Sellers, who was paid £100 for his work.
GO TO WORK ON AN EGG
HEINZ BAKED BEANS
A million housewives every day
Pick up a tin of beans and say
BEANZ MEANZ HEINZ
The little bowler-hatted flour-graders (under the supervision of chief flour-grader, Fred) first appeared on television in 1965 and kept actor John LeMesurier above the breadline for many years.
The famous Hovis advert featuring a little boy pushing a delivery bike loaded with bread up a steep cobbled hill – and scored by the emotive sound of Antonín Dvorak’s New World Symphony – became an evergreen favourite which was voted the UK’s most “heartwarming and iconic advert”.
First aired in 1973 and filmed on Gold Hill in Shaftesbury, the advert was directed by Ridley Scott who would go on to fame as a director with films such as Alien, Blade Runner and Thelma and Louise.
“T’was like taking bread to the top of the world – t’was a grand ride back though”.
Dusty Springfield is a “happy knocker upper” and she’s popular beside. It’s in the way she wakes ’em, apparently.
For 18 years we were captivated by a couple whose main interests seemed to be casseroles and gravy. For in 1958, married bliss Oxo-style appeared as Katie (Mary Holland, pictured below) and Philip (Richard Clarke, followed by Peter Moynihan) starred in advertising’s first soap opera.
Everything revolved around dinner as Katie informed Philip that Oxo has nine good ingredients and “gives a meal man appeal”.
As a reward for slaving over a hot stove, she was presented with a son, David, even though neither parent had mentioned the forthcoming event, and Katie had shown no signs of pregnancy.
To complete this remarkable entry into the world, David aged from nought to three in the course of one summer. All that meaty goodness obviously made the lad grow.
Viewers certainly took the family to their hearts. When Philip spoke sharply to her once, girls in an electronics factory came out on strike.
And there was an uproar when Katie arrived home with her shopping basket and started making gravy without first washing her hands.
Katie carried on cooking until 1976 when the pair were dropped because Oxo wanted a fresher image. Ironically, a new Oxo family was created in the 1980s (Lynda Bellingham and Michael Redfern, pictured below).
William Franklyn, whose suavity of voice matched his appearance in the series of “Sch-you-know-who” adverts, is still remembered as the voice of the brand even though his adverts ended in 1974.
Later, we had Richard E Grant and Liz Hurley each turning up at the Off Licence with their pet pooches. Hurley gets the last of the Schweppes, Grant gets the inferior brand, but his dog cleverly switches the carrier bags after distracting the other dog’s attention. “Very good. Now get her phone number.”
An ingenious commercial from Cadbury’s was launched in 1968, advertising Smash instant mashed potato.
The first commercial showed the ordinary potato as a rival, but those that followed moved on to the famous Martian series where a whole family of Martians, including the cat and the dog, would laugh at earthlings peeling and boiling potatoes.
Viewers were not insulted at being called “a most primitive people” by the metallic creations – sales soared and the Martians received so much fan mail the agency which made the commercials, now known as BMP DDB, had to prepare special literature to reply to them.
In 1999 the advertising trade magazine Campaign named the 25-year-old Cadbury’s Smash commercial its favourite in its top ten of the century. BMP DDB celebrated the accolade by showing the original 1974 commercial in Channel 4’s final advertising slot of the year at 23:55 GMT on 31 December 1999.
Can you tell Stork from butter? Thousands of housewives in supermarkets apparently couldn’t. This type of comparison vox pop was also used to great effect in the 70s with Pepsi and Coca Cola.
WOT NO MEAT?
A campaign for the British meat marketing board.
It was Sharon’s nineteenth birthday
As she got engaged to Ray
Above the jovial banter
You could hear Ray’s mother say
“Wot No Meat?”
Wot no meat, wot no meat!
How about a bit of British lamb
what about a lamb chop,chop,chop,chop chop
what about a casserole, casserole, casserole
what about a moussaka!
Cleaning Products, Paint & Fuels
Whiter than white, Clean Fresh and New Improved . . . There was plenty of debate as to which soap powder washed whiter, In 1960 we were introduced to two little girls in identical dresses, one dress white and the other off-white, and we were told “someone’s mum isn’t using Persil”.
And the Daz ‘Brand X’ commercials were so successful that a Lancashire shop-owner actually attempted to put a powder named Brand X on the market.
“Kills all known germs in one hour”
Animals have always possessed good selling power as Dulux discovered when they introduced their famous Old English Sheepdog. The first Dulux dog was Dash, who carried on for 8 years before Digby won a contest to find his successor.
Of all the Dulux dogs, Digby was the best-known. But he was not very bright and for special tasks, three identical dogs were trained by Barbara Woodhouse. They were Digby’s ”stunt dogs”.
Digby was picked up by chauffeur driven car and treated like a superstar. He even had a stand-in for lining up camera angles – a specially made large stuffed dog. And Digby even made a celebrity of his owner, Cynthia Harrison (they even met the Queen and Prince Philip).
Digby died in 1978, and Cynthia (believing her fame to be over) committed suicide the following year.
“The Esso sign means happy motoring”
“I’ve got a tiger in my tank!”. The ad campaign ran from 1963, and novelty tiger tails were available from Esso service stations (for attachment to an aerial or petrol cap).
They asked me how I knew
It was Esso Blue
I of course replied
With lower grades one buys
Smoke gets in your eyes.
Joe, the tongue-tied Esso Blue paraffin salesman who called himself the ‘Esso Blee Dooler’, was created in 1958 by Bob Godfrey and Keith Lerner. They also created Signor Buffo, the Esso petrol salesman whose voice was supplied by Dick Emery.
“Forces grey out, forces white in”
“Washday white without washday red”
Advert with a couple enjoying a Parisian break in a luxury hotel, and the woman is in a huge bubble bath rubbing herself with the orange soap. “When in Rome…” “Ah, but we’re not in Rome, we’re in Paris…” etc.
Later replaced by the Incredibly Rich family who had baths on their own private plane . . .
Imperial Leather always tried to come on like it was so classy and luxuriant, but everyone knew it was only a playground kicking away from being Tesco’s own brand.
First Bing Crosby and later Sammy Davis Jnr sang “I’m going well, I’m going Shell, I’m going well on Shell, Shell, Shell”.
“Hold it up to the light. Not a stain and shining bright”.
“Gets your clothes clean. Not only clean but deep-down clean. Tide clean.”
ZAL PINE DISINFECTANT
“ZAL is freshness with a zing”, or so Matt Monro would have you believe. It doesn’t just kill germs – it “kicks them out”.
Cigarettes & Booze
CASTELLA CLASSICS CIGARS
Ronnie Barker visiting a mate in prison but unable to push cigars through the grilling as Castella Classics were “that bit wider”. Barker then lights one up to torture his lag chum, even though he quite clearly isn’t actually smoking it.
“You should try ’em. Oh no, you can’t, can you?”
Works wonders, apparently. Especially when sung to the tune of There’s a hole in my bucket.
“The water in Majorca don’t taste like what it ought to.”
“Heineken refreshes the parts wot other beers cannot reach.”
JOHN SMITH’S YORKSHIRE BITTER
“Looks good, tastes good and, by golly, it does you good”.
Fry and Laurie advertising Panama cigars:
“Have you noticed, Hugh, that the best things in life are in sixes?”
“Beethoven’s fifth wasn’t bad.”
“Hugh, shut up.”
One 1960 advertising campaign which flopped disastrously was the commercial for Strand cigarettes. Based on a Frank Sinatra film, the advert showed actor Terence Brook as the mysterious man lighting up a Strand cigarette on a street corner and declaring “you’re never alone with a Strand”.
It was hugely popular and Brook became a celebrity overnight, with the accompanying Lonely Man theme reaching number 39 on the charts. Yet, much as people loved it, they didn’t buy the product and the campaign was soon discontinued.
The theory was that viewers believed that if they smoked Strand they would end up as lonely as the chap on the deserted street corner in the commercial.
For the record, Strand cost 3s 2d for a packet of twenty at the time
“Ah Woodbine – a great little cigarette”