My favourite ad of all time: SPH’s ‘XO Beer’ from 1993

GPB Shanghai founder and creative chairman Alvin Lim on a print campaign from Singapore Press Holdings, created by Neil French and built around a timeless advertising concept - subversion sells

This is one brief I’ve found near impossible to answer. I have favourite ads, of course I do. But like my favourite film or TV show, my absolute favourite changes from day to day. 

But my favourite print ad at this moment is none other than Neil French’s XO Beer Campaign for Singapore Press Holdings.

Now, before any of you start – I do sense a bit of futility in glorifying a print ad in this day and age. Advertising has expanded far beyond the confines of print ads, TV commercials, billboards – ‘traditional media’, if you will. 

The category itself is a Cannes scam magnet (come now, let’s be real). If there was ever a poster child (pun intended) for ‘days of advertising past’, print would be it.

This year at Cannes, Droga5 won a Grand Prix for their beautifully crafted work for The New York Times. A few weeks ago, that was my favourite ad of all time and I would happily have written about it.


But this week I thought about the many incredible pieces of work I’ve been happy to call my favourite over the years, and how none of them have ever solidified that claim.

It was then that I realised that not one of them affected me in quite the same way as Neil French’s XO Beer work for SPH.

It’s a campaign that to this day makes me nod knowingly, smile along with the joke and occasionally grimace with jealous rage. I really wish I’d done something like this. 

A campaign that became a case study, used for teaching students of advertising in schools and colleges around the world. Now that’s lasting impact.

I say I wish I’d done it, but that would have been difficult. It launched in 1993 and by then I hadn’t yet settled on a career as an ad man. 

But this campaign helped me make that choice. It opened up my eyes to the possibilities that a career in advertising could hold. What inspired me most was the way Neil used his creative work to tell a much larger story, back when there were only print ads and TV commercials.

In spite of that, I believe there is a lesson to be uncovered in this piece of work.

His brief was relatively simple. At a time when newspapers were losing out to TV in their pursuit of FMCG ad dollars, the task was to demonstrate how newspaper advertising was not only relevant for these advertisers but essential.

Rather than tell people how effective print could be for their shampoos and chewing gum and beer, Neil French, ever the zagger, decided to show them. 

He created a fake beer with a unique selling point. Then he crafted a tongue in cheek campaign that was finely honed to drive demand for said beer.

There is no reliance on brand recognition, heritage and definitely no celebrities. What we have here is pure advertising, designed to prove the worth of newspaper ads, and by extension, the stature of Singapore Press Holdings – if our paper can sell this, what can’t we sell?

It was a brilliant move of subverting expectations (the advertiser’s, not the readers) to prove a point, and it worked. People started asking for XO Beer in bars all over Singapore. 

Following in its considerable footsteps are some modern examples – Your Weekend’s ‘The Last Ever Issue, and An-Nahar’s ‘The Blank Edition’ come to mind. These are Grand Prix winners of today, so where does that leave the XO Beer campaign?

The lesson here is that some advertising concepts are timeless. Subversion sells, whether on a print ad or a digital activation like Burger King’s Whopper Detour.

One last point – a small detail, but one of the headlines ended with: ‘In absence of horse, policeman also can.’

 Yes, it’s broken English, but that’s part of our lingo in Singapore. The ad managed to be colloquial without being cheap, which to me is always an achievement. 

It’s one thing to be witty. It’s another thing when the humour belongs to the people you’re marketing to. By the way, I’m not a fan of that particular ‘m’ word – I find the more we think in those terms, the less authentic our work becomes.

But I digress. It works to get the point across.

At this moment, Neil French’s XO Beer Campaign is my favourite ad of all time. It’s a little piece of advertising history that challenged the status quo and, for me, changed the game.Alvin Lim is founder and creative chairman of GBP, based in Shanghai


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