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My favourite ad campaign of all time: The Carling Black Label series of the 1980s

In the 1980 WCRS London not only created an iconic beer campaign, they innovated in terms of how an advertising campaign idea can evolve – in turn creating a phrase that has since crept into the English vernacular – writes Adrian McNamara of Dentsu China

Without showing my age too much, I grew up in the United Kingdom during a golden age of advertising.

A time where if you wanted to skip a television ad, you’d go make a ‘cuppa’ between commercial breaks or use it as the right moment to nip to the bathroom.

Not me though. As a kid I was fascinated by these 30 second and sometimes longer spots of entertainment, some seemingly better than the actual programme my parents were watching at the time.

I found TV commercials to be intriguing and fun. It’s sad to admit it, but I relished the ad breaks, waiting to see what new ideas would surprise me next. From that time, one particular campaign that stands out for me is Carling Black Label and the ‘I bet he drinks Carling Black Label’ creative.

Based on the formula that if someone did something impressive or worth complimenting, then they must be a drinker of Carling Black Label beer. This was then followed by an ending tag line, delivered by two English comedians as they watched on.

It was done in manner that was so perfectly underplayed and equisitely timed that it soon became a part of everyday conversation and a remark often uttered by the man on the street.

It’s a formula that I think worked so much better than the clichéd and formulaic approach we see today over and over again in so many markets and across so many beverages – protagonist in the middle of a situation, takes a sip of beverage (X), a gasp of refreshment, situation improves because of beverage (X).

It’s a campaign that if it ran today, you could just imagine the many memes, content clips and text-based banter that would likely fly around people’s social networks. It could very easily become a goldmine of user generated content.

But what really stood out for me with this long running campaign was its continual ability to evolve in terms of the way it was executed; surprising viewers with its ads, that at the time, didn’t seem like ads, often spoofing other commercials and popular culture in the process.

The ‘Launderette’ commercial – was a topical spot that meticulously spoofed a classic Levi’s commercial of the same name and time that featured up and coming male model Nick Kamen, stripping down to his boxer shorts in order to stone wash his jeans.

The ‘Squirrel’ commercial – was a simple spot that showed a garden squirrel taking on an elaborate backyard obstacle course to the soundtrack of the ‘Mission Impossible’ theme. Word has it they had to painstaking train the squirrel with nuts in order to get it to complete the whole obstacle course.

While a few people along and advertising folks remember or have referenced this campaign before, it’s usually the ‘Dambusters’ commercial that they refer to, which granted was a classic, but there’s still one particular execution that sticks in my mind as being unique at the time – and that’s the lesser known ‘Cowboy’ commercial.

The ‘Cowboy’ commercial – starts in a typical western saloon with a very unassuming, character as he tries but fails to order a drink from the bar. This leads to him leaving the premises and he quickly becomes pursued by a group of horse-riding bandits.

We see them as they chase after our protagonist while trying to capture him with lassos, but as the man runs on we see each bandit pulled from their horse and dragged along in the man’s wake. The commercial ends with one of the bandits remarking ‘I bet he drinks Carling Black Label’.

But, where this commercial blew my tiny mind was that it continued into the next commercial – for a love songs album collection, and then the next commercial – for laundry powder, each time revealing the cowboy and resulting in him being chased through the middle of the commercial.

At the time I’d never seen an advertisement run across the same ad break. It surprised and delighted my ad-addicted brain. As an adult too, I’m sure I would’ve cracked a smile and given a nod to the brand for its clever use of the media.

So, when you fast forward to today and the recent Tide Super Bowl spot from last year, and see how widely lauded and awarded it was, then it’s only right to raise a glass in recognition of those creatives who wrote that ‘Cowboy’ commercial and that classic advertising campaign – around about 30 years ago. We have come full circle.

They surely must have drunk Carling Black Label.

Adrian McNamara is a creative director at Dentsu China and is based in Beijing

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