NOW THAT'S WHAT I CALL ADVERTISING

No creative discipline is so quintessentially of our time as advertising; and no industry is more practised in the arts of self-congratulation. What, then, could be more fitting than for Peter York, doyen of advertising commentators, to mark the approaching end of the 20th century by selecting his 20 favourite advertisements?

YOU KNOW where you are with advertising. "Whatever is done for money is sacred," Quentin Crisp used to say, and advertising is obviously, transparently done for money. If advertisers and their agencies do it for money (there are other things besides, like corporate and personal pride), their customers do it for real. It's one thing to talk across the range of approved middle-class subjects - national politics, travel, restaurants, major art gallery and museum shows and so on; but the statements by which people really reveal themselves are those they make through the contents of their shopping bags. (Let's imagine the carrier-bag contents for one of these urbane NW1 conversationalists as a top-shelf magazine, a tube of Dr Wernet's Denture Fixative and two packs of Walkers' Cheese & Onion.) Advertising agencies, when they get it right, know the people in their markets better than they do themselves. They know their real priorities, anxieties and obsessions. And they play to them. So it's a very passionate relationship.

"Historians and archaeologists will one day discover that the advertisements of our time are the richest and most faithful reflections that any society ever made of its entire range of activities," said Marshall McLuhan in Understanding Media. Ads are, at the very least, powerful social history, a reflection of the secret heart. They have to get it right.

But the best advertising is more than that, more than just evidence. The best advertising is either animated by a very durable Big Idea (Clairol) or pulls off an aesthetic or technical effect better than anyone else (given the per second production budgets of major television commercials, that isn't so surprising) or, in one of 100 ways, arrives somewhere much further along the line than its immediate objectives. The best advertising is something in its own right.

People like ads, particularly in Britain, where clients and their agencies are keen to amuse. Since the Seventies, research has shown public approval for UK advertising rising as it has become funnier and more fantastical; the moods and styles of those very British post-Sixties cultural changes were incorporated from the music industry and the comedy industry. If ever there was a sector which utterly subscribed to Cool Britannia, it's been advertising.

The entertaining kind of advertising we know and love is largely 20th- century, based on national branded goods and services, communicated in national media, and designed by professional intermediaries to create long-term brand awareness. The whole thing really came together in Britain and America just before the First World War, and, initially, posters were its leading edge.

It's huge now. We're bathed in it, in every medium. Everyone knows the awesome statistics about the hundreds of thousands of "messages" Americans will see before the age of 10. So, although the industry will shortly be producing a number of end-of-century "best of" lists, it's impossible to agree a really definitive best-ever list of the century's advertising; there's simply too much product. It's certainly impossible to keep it to 20 campaigns - the task I've set myself here. What follows isn't representative or systematic: it's just a partial collection of things I've liked or admired.

My Top 20, starting with my favourite three, is overwhelmingly Seventies, Eighties and Nineties UK television and posters, advertising I've experienced directly, with a few pre-war and Fifties classics that I think would be resonant at any time. It doesn't cover the complete waterfront of decades, sectors or media, and my criteria shift constantly. One of the pleasures of writing regularly about advertisements in the Independent on Sunday's Culture section is that I can respond to an ad however I like. I don't have to worry about its commercial effectiveness, or its social responsibility, or even its topicality. I've allowed myself the same freedom here.

FIAT STRADA: `FIGARO' COLLETT DICKENSON PEARCE, 1979.

Beautifully produced, outstandingly elegant. Highly innovative - no traditional narrative or product claims - but designed to address xenophobic doubts about Italian cars' build-quality and tendency to rust. Matching the robotic action to music from `The Marriage of Figaro' was an influential first.

CLAIROL: `IF I ONLY HAVE ONE LIFE LET ME LIVE IT AS A BLONDE' FOOTE, CONE & BELDING, 1959.

Imagine the impact of these words on backwoods Creationist America in 1959. Only one life! And women taking a decision about that life - prefiguring The Pill, Betty Friedan, Careerism and Taking The Initiative In Bed. Written by a woman, Shirley Polykoff, this is the ad that persuaded David Hockney to go blond.

`WHAT DID YOU DO IN THE GREAT WAR?' PARLIAMENTARY RECRUITING COMMITTEE, 1915.

The themes of a Victorian genre painting recycled as recruitment blackmail. You could remake it for Y2K easily

HOVIS COLLETT DICKENSON PEARCE, 1976. This is nostalgia to feel nostalgic about: the first big sepia-style ad. It tapped into a range of emerging feelings about the past, the countryside and natural, wholemealy things. And a brilliant choice of music (from Dvorak's `New World' symphony)

BLACKCURRANT TANGO HOWELL HENRY CHALDECOTT, 1997. Tango is a successful advertising-driven brand, where the communication is much more important than the product. And the communication incorporates its young audience's knowledge of the world post-E, post Playstation. It's got right inside the 11-year-old sensibility. This campaign harnessed every young, xenophobic feeling brilliantly with White Cliffs, low-flying Harrier jets and a fat patriot

THE INDEPENDENT: `IT IS. ARE YOU?' SAATCHI & SAATCHI, 1986. The launch advertising put a new proposal to a new group of `non-aligned' people in a new way, defining a new life

GUINNESS: `SURFERS' ABBOTT MEAD VICKERS, 1999.

This is a spectacularly beautiful effect, technology realising an old dream from baroque sculpture in a credible way. The commercial of 1999.

`YOUR COUNTRY NEEDS YOU' CAXTON ADVERTISING, 1914. Endlessly parodied for its King and Country style, this remains the seminal public-sector ad, shamelessly milking Edwardian deference to terrifying effect.

APPLE: `1984' (right)

CHIAT/DAY, 1984. Cult of cults, this influential, early High-Design dystopia was apparently a one-off by Ridley Scott just for Apple's 1984 Management Conference. So how come I've seen it?

NIKE: `JUST DO IT' WIEDEN & KENNEDY, 1988 ONWARDS. I admire Nike's on-going campaign between gritted teeth. The ultimate statement of can-do American individualism for the Eighties and Nineties - but you have to ask `just do what?'

THE ECONOMIST: `MANAGEMENT TRAINEE' ABBOTT MEAD VICKERS BBCO, 1988. Highly recognisable, the Economist's red posters keep saying clever things to clever people using a distinctive tone

BRITISH AIRWAYS SAATCHI & SAATCHI, 1983. Tremendous production values, tremendous corporate chutzpah. Very Eighties in the most liberating sense

BENSON & HEDGES: `IGUANA' COLLETT DICKENSON PEARCE (CDP), 1977 ONWARDS. This campaign marked The Escape From New York - a young group of British advertising agencies and film-makers who did something different and more exciting than the Americans. And it was the beginning of the Seventies/Eighties round of big-budget surrealism

LEVI'S `LAUNDERETTE'

BARTLE BOGLE HEGARTY, 1985.

This commercial invented an entirely mythical, anachronistic America - all the good bits put together in a confident, stylish way that only Brits could do. And Nick Kamen's strip was the beginning of a raft of men baring it while assertive women covered up

GUARDIAN: `POINTS OF VIEW' HOWELL HENRY CHALDECOTT LURY, 1986.

How to destabilise the viewers' expectations in 30 seconds. The approach of this campaign played to the Guardian's traditional strengths in a new way

ROLLS-ROYCE DAVID OGILVY, 1960s. Elegant literate press advertising for an elegant archaic British luxury car, subtly addressing American doubts (produced by an elegant, literate Englishman in New York, David Ogilvy)

PRETTY POLLY: `GREAT PAIR OF JEANS' COLLETT DICKENSON PEARCE, 1976.

Heart-stopping simplicity, a restatement of glamour for the Seventies. Contemporary with the ground-breaking Roxy Music album covers

VOLKSWAGEN: `THINK SMALL'

DOYLE DANE BERNBACH, 1959.

The admen's own highest rated cult classic, by their own favourite creative-agency owner, Bill Bernbach. This is the Sixties in 1959, in the pared-down black-and-big- white-space art direction, the carefully low-key style of the copy, and its flattery of the more `intelligent' reader. It will have made its competitors look very old-fashioned

LYNX: `DUMB ANIMALS' YELLOWHAMMER, 1986.

Shock value. A simple dramatic reminder of where fur comes from, photographed from inside the high-fashion stockade by David Bailey.

`KEEP DEATH OFF THE ROAD' (right) MINISTRY OF INFORMATION, 1946.

Hugely controversial in its time, this is the precursor of those Central Office of Information Drink and Drive campaigns playing on drivers' guilt. Hugely memorable

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