All our yesterdays

First it was Bertie Bassett; now the Smash Martians are back on our screens. Are ad agencies playing on viewers' nostalgia - or do they just lack fresh ideas? Meg Carter reports
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The Independent Online

Thirty years after their first appearance on British television in May 1974, the Smash Martians are back. Just like Wall's, which has just dusted off its "Just One Cornetto" theme from the Eighties, and Cadbury Schweppes, which recently resurrected Bertie Bassett, Smash hopes that recycling old advertising will help sell instant mashed potato. In adland old has become the new new. But questions are already being asked as to whether this trend is simply a disguise for a lack of creative ideas.

Thirty years after their first appearance on British television in May 1974, the Smash Martians are back. Just like Wall's, which has just dusted off its "Just One Cornetto" theme from the Eighties, and Cadbury Schweppes, which recently resurrected Bertie Bassett, Smash hopes that recycling old advertising will help sell instant mashed potato. In adland old has become the new new. But questions are already being asked as to whether this trend is simply a disguise for a lack of creative ideas.

The appeal of retro advertising is undoubtedly growing. Recent years have seen the return of Captain Bird's Eye and the R Whites Secret Lemonade Drinker. Lloyds TSB brought back the black horse. And Heinz considered - and then dropped - an idea to axe its long-standing "Beanz Meanz Heinz" slogan. More recently, Coca-Cola went back to its roots in its latest UK TV campaign harking back to Coke's Seventies classic, "Teach the World to Sing". Meanwhile, Nestlé set the wheels in motion earlier this year to bring back the Milky Bar Kid - although after a subsequent management change, the plan is now on hold.

Industry insiders are not short of ideas about why retro is becoming all the rage. "It appeals because it has cross-generational appeal," according to William Higham, the chief executive of trends consultancy Next Big Thing. "Young people are fully aware of advertising and have grown tired of artistic narrative in ads that pretend to be something else. Older people, meanwhile, are looking for a safe place in an increasingly uncertain world, and nostalgia gives them just that: a direct route back to their youth."

Smash Martians, Cornetto and the Milky Bar Kid all come from a simpler age of advertising, adds Sid McGrath, the planning director at advertising agency HHCL/Red Cell who's clients include Bird's Eye. "Because so many brands around now are young upstarts created out of nothing they tend to be here today, gone tomorrow. Revisit old ideas for longer-standing brands, however, and you can take advantage of an amazing short-cut to tap into awareness built through tens of millions of pounds-worth of advertising over many years."

There's still much to be said for old-style advertising - with brand characters, memorable copy and catchy jingles - though many of today's young ad agency creatives now dismiss it as crass and unsophisticated. Robert Campbell, the executive creative director at ad agency McCann Erickson whose clients include Wall's, bemoans "the cultural and intellectual snobbery" that pervades British advertising nowadays.

"A lot of brands like Cornetto were built in the Sixties and Seventies when everyone watched TV all at once before media fragmentation, so ads could become really, really famous," he says. "Now, however, the industry's in a malaise. Too many of today's ads are over-thought. People don't embrace the joy of advertising any more, and this despite the fact that many people remember ads from the Seventies more clearly than the ad they saw yesterday - even those who are not old enough to have seen them the first time round."

Which is just what Premier Foods, which now owns Smash, is trying to capitalise on. For despite not advertising on UK TV for the past five years, the Smash Martians - who laughed at humans ("a most primitive people") for peeling their own potatoes, boiling them and smashing them to bits - still regularly top polls of the public's favourite advertising. So now Premier is investing in a range of Smash Martians-branded merchandise. Smash Martians stationery, clothes and even mobile phone accessories are coming soon to a high street near you and Smash Martians pasta shapes go on sale later this year.

"Few, if any, contemporary advertising characters stand up like Martians - they just don't make them like that anymore, or stick with the good ideas long enough," believes Gordon Downie, the managing director of KDBC Media, which is developing the Martians product range. "The trouble with advertising nowadays is that creatives want to move quickly on to the next idea. They are only interested in something new - often just for the sake of being seen to be doing something different."

For Campbell, reviving Cornetto is all about creating famous advertising by piggybacking past fame. The new ads combine the familiar "Just One Cornetto" theme tune based on the Italian love song "O Sole Mio" with a contemporary twist. So in one, a bloke on a beach is picked up by a girl who turns out to be a transvestite. "Hopefully it will achieve a disproportionately high awareness for a commercial nowadays - far more so than if we had started from scratch," he says. "Cornetto is just one of many fabulous advertising propositions from the past now just sitting around doing nothing. But most are ignored as today's ad industry has lost touch with the idea that it should be in the business of creating fame."

Not everyone, however, sees the rise of retro advertising as a welcome development. "Personally, I prefer to come up with something new - I feel uncomfortable trading on nostalgia and on other people's ideas," says Nik Studzinski, the creative director at ad agency Publicis London whose clients include Cadbury Schweppes and McVities. "When the original Cornetto campaign was running it was great - completely of its time, un-self-conscious advertising. Now, however, the new version feels affected and a bit contrived."

Resuscitate old ads in haste at your peril, observes John Webster, the executive creative director at ad agency BMP DDB Needham and the creator of the Smash Martians. The danger is that you end up looking tired, or old-fashioned. "Trade too much on the past and you can look like you haven't got any new ideas. So if you do do it, do it with a modern spin, and do it well," he says. "Ads are always shaped by the times they were dreamt up in. When I invented the Sugar Puffs Honey Monster he was childish, naïve and innocent. Today he's a sexy, wised-up bloke who hangs out in discos."

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