Even the most jaded television viewer would have a hard time denying that, just occasionally, they enjoy advertising. Tell me you didn't thrill to the sight of white stallions rearing out of the pounding surf to promote Guinness? How many times have you found yourself humming the soundtrack to the latest Levi's ad? And is there anyone who wasn't even slightly enthralled by the idea of unleashing thousands of coloured bouncy balls in the streets of San Francisco, just to flog a TV set?
British advertising is the best in the world. Everyone says so. "The United Kingdom is the most audacious market," says Georges Bermann, boss of the French advertising company Partizan. "Agencies are keen to engage young directors because they bring with them the latest trends. And British advertisers take risks that others shy away from."
At the Cannes Lions Advertising Festival – the industry's self-congratulatory version of the film festival – British ads often reap the top prizes. Highly scientific research conducted in bars throughout the festival suggests that people like British ads because they are funny. "Somehow, British humour works worldwide," a German creative director told me. "Your ads are chatty, sarcastic and provocative. Whenever I meet a British person in a pub, I feel like I'm in one of your ad campaigns."
So what does a country's advertising say about its national characteristics? Some people will tell you that globalisation has had a homogenising effect. But I spend disproportionate amounts of time looking at commercials from around the world, and I can assure you that – at least when it comes to the ad break – that is not the case.
Take the French. With their history of producing the world's finest luxury goods, wines and fashion, they are the masters of sophisticated advertising. The problem is that they barely know how to do anything else. The glamour button is permanently stuck down. Look at the advertising for Air France. It features a couple relaxing by a sublime swimming pool, or a woman in a sari reading at the end of a jetty. Right until the end, you think you're looking at a perfume ad.
The Germans rarely win awards for creativity. Their ads are as smart and streamlined as a BMW. The most popular German advertising campaign shows a celebrated thinker – an architect, a novelist or a politician, whose face we never see – hidden behind the broadsheet newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. The slogan reads: "There's always a clever mind behind it."
"The explanation for Germany's lack of creative edge is probably its strong manufacturing base," my German creative pal told me. "Britain, like Holland and Spain, has a trading history. Germany is a producer. Thus Britain makes great ads for cars – but Germany actually makes cars."
Let's mock the Italians. Their advertising was permanently marked by something called Carosello – the carousel – which was a fixed ten-minute advertising slot screened every day at around 8.45pm from the late 1950s until the mid 1970s. Thanks to a government edict, it had to provide sponsored entertainment as opposed to a hard sell. And because kids loved watching Carosello just before bedtime, Italian advertising began to resemble kiddies' TV. To this day – long after Carosello was replaced by conventional advertising breaks – a brand of Italian coffee is promoted by two featureless cone-shaped cartoon characters. Italian ads tend to be humorous and musical.
As you might expect, Latin advertising is lively and entirely free of political correctness. A recent Argentine ad for Axe body spray (the international version of Lynx) showed a guy zipping through the streets on a scooter. As young women rushed into the road to pounce on this irresistible chap, they collided with one another – magically merging with a puff of smoke to form a composite, even sexier babe. The ad promoted a new "two-for-one" offer, or something of that sort.
But my favourite advertising comes from Thailand. The Thais seem to have it all: technical wizardry, imagination, and a sense of humour. Thai creative director Suthisak Sucharittanonta, of the agency BBDO Bangkok, says that the country's approach is summed up by the Thai word "zab", which means "flavourful or delicious". "Thai humour is slapstick and in-your-face," he says. "We started out making ads that we thought would appeal only to Thais, but it turns out that people all over the world love them."
Thai ads are about overacting, drama and hilarity. For a fix of advertising Thai style, try scouring YouTube for the award-winning "Twister" spot, made for Bangkok Insurance.
A family runs screaming into the street as a whirlwind ploughs into their wooden house. They look on in horror as their home is torn to pieces and the wreckage whipped into a towering funnel of wind. Then the twister subsides, gently depositing the house back on its foundations – completely intact. The family members stare comically. A final roof tile skitters into place. And that, in the end, is why British advertising professionals spend a great deal of time watching commercials from around the world. We may make some terrific ads, but we're not above learning a few tricks from our rivals overseas.
Mark Tungate is the author of 'Adland: A Global History of Advertising', £18.99, published by Kogan Page