The Critics' Awards 1998: Advertisements - The rebranding of rice pudding? You can't be serious. So make it quite ridiculous instead

"Go West": it's an injunction that has caught the imagination of great people before, from Charles Kingsley to Hugh Grant. And the Village People. Their funny Seventies anthem provides the pulsing momentum for my favourite 1998 commercial, the one for Ambrosia Creamed Rice.

This ad has three things working for it: the tune, of course; the wonderful image of Mr Ooh-Aar riding a cow in Paddington Station; and surprise. It's utterly not what you expect from these purveyors of Sixties canned comestibles, with their usual low-budget country-fresh claims and big- pack shots.

And it's ridiculous throughout, with sublime choruses like, "Go West, where they say Ooh-Aar,/ Go West, where the sheep go Baa". My instincts say that this is a better way of kick-starting interest in an old favourite than, say, Kelloggs's formulaic approach to reviving cornflakes.

If you've got a brand whose role, status and imagery has been utterly changed by time and social trends, you can't merely reassert its Sixties Unique Selling Proposal. Similarly, you can't just go for straight nostalgia. You've got to take the risk of the Big Transformative Gesture, reckoning that in most of these situations you've got absolutely nothing to lose, because the traditional claims are completely burnt out. Something memorable, irrational and very funny might just remind people of why they liked this brand in the first place without detaining their rational neurones for an instant. It's a high-risk game; but in this instance, it has come off.

There were other things to like this year. Heineken reappeared with a well-made narrative Ad about some well-intentioned road-menders. Its no-SFX-no-comedians approach was cheering. The Ian Wright/ Martin Luther King treatment in the Mercury One-to-One series was the strong shot in an otherwise bland campaign. And the Somerfield woman made the best of a very difficult job, accentuating the positives in an also-ran retailer.

The Volkswagen Nerds-U-Like, worrying about door closures or the weight of plastic water bottles when they're in the bath or on the job, were consistently clever. Going with the flow on national stereotypes needs a precise judgement call about where they work for and against you. But dull, obsessive engineers look on-message for a brand which sells reliability.

And the commercials - nicely understated, marvellously unglamorous - get it just right. (No, he isn't pleased to see you, Missus, it really is a steel rule in his pocket at all times of the day or night.) And yet, excellent as the campaign is, it's not transformative, which is why it's just pipped by a comical cow.

But there was a lot to irritate this year. As advertising creatives get a bigger chemistry set from the makers of software magic, so they long to use it - down to the very last button. These tricks turn into down- market commodity and crass borrowed interest in next to no time. It's real lads' stuff, and they really should keep it for PlayStation.

The latest trick is a sort of Soho version of social realism - poor folks for real. It gets dangerously close to Wayne and Waynetta Slob sometimes. And it really isn't funny. Why don't they pick on ghastly rich people for a change? There's no shortage.

t Ad of 1998: Ambrosia Creamed Rice

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