Media: This ad is good for you

Guinness's latest campaign sees a return to the era of historic images.
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Some things divide us and others make us all the same. Well, three things, really. As Benjamin Franklin might have said, we will always be united by death, taxes, and our admiration for Guinness advertising.

Unfortunately, the hold the third of these has traditionally enjoyed over our collective consciousness has taken something of a beating in the last couple of years. But latter-day salvation has come in the form of two striking TV commercials of genuinely cinematic proportions.

"Swimback", which features an ageing Italian swimmer in a race against a pint of Guinness, has just been named ad of the year at the British Television Advertising Awards. The follow-up, filmed in a hazy black and white and finished off by the same post-production facility that worked on Titanic, tracks a group of surfers waiting for the ultimate wave.

The company that announced itself to the British drinking public in 1929 with the bold, brave and ultimately unsubstantiated slogan Guinness is Good For You; the company whose "Man With a Girder" poster now has pride of place in the Victoria & Albert museum; the company that introduced a obscure Dutch actor named Rutger Hauer to a perplexed and thoroughly pleased British public - that same company suddenly started, in advertising terms, to have a very hard time of it indeed.

The first hiccup arrived along with an incomprehensible (well, even more incomprehensible than usual) TV campaign directed by the maverick film director Tony Kaye. Shot in black and white, these films eschewed the conventional product shot favoured by most ads. Instead we got a pensioner, pictured at home with his budgie, his goldfish and a pair of false teeth stored proudly in a jar.

We watched the old man dressing methodically for a wedding and then the Pete Townsend quote "Hope I Die Before I get Old" flash up on to the screen. We saw the action then cut quickly to the steps of a register office. Again we saw the old man, only this time he was pictured arm in arm with his new wife, a heavily pregnant blonde who couldn't possibly have been much more than a quarter of his age.

The strapline for this ad, as for the whole campaign, simply read "Not Everything in Black And White Makes Sense". It also left a nation, even a nation accustomed to eccentricity in Guinness advertising, scratching its collective head.

Two departures quickly followed. Tony Kaye ducked out of ad directing and headed for Hollywood to make his first feature film, American History X. Meanwhile the Guinness advertising account left Ogilvy & Mather, only its fourth ad agency in 72 years, in favour of Abbott Mead Vickers, the BT to Volvo shop that is now the largest in the UK.

"They arrived a year ago at a time when Guinness was undergoing considerable corporate upheaval as part of the creation of Diageo [formed by the merger of Guinness and Grand Met] and they came with an ambitious plan to make Guinness a brand with a 10 per cent share of the UK beer market within 10 years," explains Hugh Derek, who now looks after the account at AMV. Unfortunately, Guinness had only 4.5 per cent of market share.

But then, the brand was at a cross-roads. For years it had occupied a distinct place in the nation's bars by virtue of the simple fact that it wasn't either lager or bitter. Its advertising - from the chess set favoured by Rutger Hauer to the Toucan invented by the crime writer Dorothy L Sayers - merely had to feature the colours black and white to get its point of difference across. Things are no longer so simple. There are now, whisper it in Park Royal or Dublin, other stout brands available on the market.

"Our job was to reinforce the brand distinctiveness but also to stop Guinness being viewed simply as a quiet Sunday afternoon pint," says Derek. "We wanted to make the brand more youthful, to get more of the St Patrick's Day feeling into Guinness-drinking all year round."

Their solution is just two commercials old. But already it has restored a nation's faith in the efficacy of Guinness advertising, and has pushed the dark drink's market share through the magical 5 per cent barrier.

The first achieved this despite starring a sixty-something, bald Italian swimmer with the build of Mussolini and a nifty line in retro swimming- trunks. It was the most successful ad, AMV insists, that Guinness has ever shown. The latest ad - released earlier this month - looks by contrast like something out of the Calvin Klein archive, with its grainy black- and-white images of surfers waiting to catch the cascading 40ft waves. Then suddenly, though the magic of television, the waves are transformed into a succession of thundering white horses.

Both ads are beautifully filmed, but then there is nothing new there. Guinness ads of the past have been directed by Hugh Chariots of Fire Hudson, by Alan Midnight Express Parker and by Ridley Bladerunner Scott, among others.

More importantly, though, the new commercials have already breathed new life into a brand that had started to taste, almost for the first time, what it is like to make do with merely serviceable advertising. It is no coincidence that both of them were directed by the UK's hottest new directing talent, Jonathan Glazer. Appropriately enough, he left the latest two-week Guinness shoot in Hawaii to start work in Spain on his first feature film, Sexy Beast, a gangster movie starring Ray Winstone and produced by The Last Emperor's Jeremy Thomas.

"There was a sense of working within this great advertising tradition but what I liked most was the fact that Guinness leave you with the freedom to bring your own lyricism to your film," explains Glazer. "They really want to make great advertising again. So they let us get away with our obsessive attention to detail without going on about the budget or whatever, like some clients. For the swimmer film, for instance, we knew we wanted a guy that looked a bit like Mussolini but we didn't know how to find him. In the end we got to the location and then just wandered out along the beach and lined up more than 300 random Italians before seeing this guy windsurfing who looked just right."

"He didn't speak any English, but seemed well up for the role. Then in the surfing film, again we cast it out there, this time in Hawaii. But the main thing there was that I wanted to create not just a Fifties look, but also a sort of Delacroix effect, which was where the horses came in."

The horses, in fact, were supplied after a month in the same post-production facility that took care of Titanic. The ad itself took a Titanic-like whole year to make it to the screen from the moment it was first presented to the client. Most ads take eight weeks.

Now, Delacroix, Titanic and hot young directors are not the staples of most new advertising campaigns. Guinness is different. But then, Guinness's best advertising has always revelled in that difference.

"I think the new work, and certainly the swimmer racing home against the time the drink is being poured, are right up there with the very best Guinness ads," concedes Robert Campbell, a creative partner at one of London's most exciting ad agencies, the Virgin to Vauxhall shop Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe. "The campaign had lost its way and these bring us back to the sort of Guinness advertising we expect. But then I always think there is something strange about Guinness compared to almost every other of the great, long-running advertising campaigns. For Volkswagen, for instance, the advertising starts with the fact that here is a great car. Guinness is the only thing I can think of where the advertising has always been miles better than the product it's promoting. And long may that continue."