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My favourite ad of all time: Penn tennis balls ‘You’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all’

This ad, for Penn Tennis Balls, would seem to have been created at a point of ‘peak product demo’ because it is simultaneously an exemplar of the genre and pastiche of it – writes Shaun McIlrath of Iris

There are very few ads that make me laugh out loud. Certainly not in the way that this ad did.

And yet, there was no JFK moment – I can’t remember where I was, what I was doing or when I first saw it. But it has stayed with me over the years and, although many great ads have temporarily taken its place, this one has remained on a pedestal somewhere deep inside my head for nearly two decades.

Product demos were once the backbone of American advertising. The 1960s and early 1970s were the heyday of hard-nosed USP advertising and resulted in an endless procession of products being beaten, boiled, burned and blown up to land all kinds of unique propositions.

Many advertising classics, including VW’s Snowplough, were born out of the desire to demonstrate a product’s rational benefits in increasingly original or irrational ways. This ad, for Penn Tennis Balls, would seem to have been created at a point of ‘peak product demo’ because it is simultaneously an exemplar of the genre and pastiche of it.

The benefit of Penn Tennis Balls is that they are all made to the same high standard – so you can be sure that every one you buy will be the same. Presumably, back in the day, this was a significant issue for overly-competitive, racket-wielding tennis types. The ad sets out to prove this by having scientists drop Penn tennis balls from a 40 storey building to see how high they bounce and this results in a super-clear claim about product consistency.

But it’s the darkly comic twist at the end that completely caught me off guard.  “Now we tried the same test with our competitor” announces the voice over in a very matter-of-fact way, as we see the two lab-coated scientists lob an amiable, suited gent off the same building.

There is genius at work here and not just in the surprise of the twist. The ad manages to create a weird mix of playful aggression and self-effacing silliness all at once. It says very clearly that Penn Tennis Balls bounce consistently to the same height and that competitors’ products. Well, it doesn’t actually say anything at all about them.

In fact, it uses humour to deftly avoid making any directly competitive claim. The notion that competitor products won’t perform as well is completely implied. Because of the silliness of the suggestion, we assume that competitors’ products won’t fair as well. But there is nothing stated, nothing empirical or factual. It’s all in our minds.

And therein lies the masterstroke. A highly competitive ad, without a directly competitive claim. Sugared with humour and swallowed whole.    

The final glorious touch is the end line: “Penn. You’ve seen one. You’ve seen them all.” This is a quirky, off-hand way of reinforcing the same point about consistency – with a self-effacing smile. And the lack of bombast only serves to make Penn even more likeable.

It was the great Bill Bernbach who said: “A little admission gains a lot of acceptance.” And while this end line is hardly an admission, it trumpets the benefit by adapting the phrase ‘when you’ve seen one you’ve seen them all’, which is normally negatively associated with the mundane.

Overall, it’s a triumph. A demo ad for tennis balls that demonstrates a lot of balls.

The spot is ancient, from the early 1970s I’d guess. There’s only one copy left online and that seems to come from a review programme. The film is grainy and the voiceover is, at times, a little hard to hear. It all seems to add to its sense of preciousness. This is a rare and decaying artefact that may one day be lost to future generations. Another reason to surface it today.

I’ve tried to find out who did it a few times. I’ve never succeeded.

But I like to think that there’s an old creative team in a retirement home somewhere in New York,  looking up and the skyline occasionally and still giggling about this. Enjoy.

McIlrath feels Penn was ‘peak product demo’

Shaun McIlrath is global chief creative Officer at Iris Worldwide and is based in London, in the United Kingdom

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