Claire Beale on Advertising

Take a trip down memory lane and you won't go far wrong

Moist-lipped Flake-fellatio is back. It's pure chocolate porn and it's coming to a TV screen near you. Again.

The Flake girl is one of advertising's most enduring icons, and she's back in a new ad campaign, slobbering over her choccie bar and bringing with her memories of rain-drenched poppy meadows, overflowing baths, and crumbly indulgence.

Cadbury has given our girl a bit of a 21st-century makeover but the entendres are as double as ever. The PR guff is particularly poetic: "We see the Flake girl enjoying her Flake moment as raindrops rise off her soaked body... tiny flakes of chocolate rise up to her mouth [the money shot?]". Subtle this ain't.

But what's really interesting about this ad is not any overtly sexual connotation. Nor is it the fact that it was directed by Jake Scott, the son of the legendary commercials/movie director Ridley. It is the idea that, after five years, Cadbury has chosen to resurrect one of the icons of advertising's heyday.

Cynics amongst us might be tempted to jump to the conclusion that such an advertising phoenix is simply what happens when money and creative ideas are tight: "Forget risk-taking and anyhow our agency can't crack the new brief, so let's just dust off the old ad and pretend it's a smart revivalist strategy." It happens. Certainly Cadbury is not alone in harking back to a golden age of advertising. Guinness recently resurrected its famous toucan for a poster campaign and brought back its series of classic ads (remember the white horses, the racing snails, and the dancing man?) to give them an updated extra twist for its Extra Cold brand.

Orange, too, went back to the past to breathe new life into its old "the future's bright" strapline. The Sugar Puffs Honey Monster and Smash Martians made a comeback a few years ago - decades after their advertising debut. And Al and Monkey have just made an advertising return, though in their case the icons proved more enduring than the brand: ITV Digital is long dead, but Al and Monkey survive to enjoy a nice cup of PG Tips.

So what's going on here? Is there really a dearth of big new ideas with the potential to endure as long as the Flake girl, or Captain Birds Eye? Have agencies today lost the art of the icon? Are clients simply no longer willing to invest the money required to build an enduring advertising property?

The truth is that agencies are still as equipped to create big, brand-building advertising icons as they ever were. It's just harder than ever before to stitch these iconic ideas into popular culture. The reason for that, of course, is that popular culture itself - a collective national consciousness - is not as strong or as easily accessible as it once was. As our media habits have been spread ever more thinly over more TV channels, websites and radio stations, there are far fewer shared media experiences. The days of an advertiser being able to parade their brand icon in front of a quarter of the nation with a single ad spot on a Saturday evening are long gone.

The Flake girl comes from a time when there was only one commercial TV channel and most of us were watching it. If you were around in the 1970s the chances are the image of a Flake girl painting in the meadow as it starts to rain is burnt onto your retina. I bet you could sing the song, too. It's the sort of long-term advertising recall that is gold-dust these days

The point is that not only do we just remember these ads but we remember them fondly. Partly it's rose-tinted nostalgia, but perhaps we also remember these ads with affection because they are part of a shared history that is becoming increasingly rare.

Either way, for a new generation of chocolate-scoffers the new Flake ad is nothing more than a rather bland, unsubtle play on the hackneyed orgasm-inducing chocolate theme that confectionery advertisers reckon is the route to a woman's purse. Well, at least Cadbury knows it has worked before.

IT'S BACK to the golden years in agency-land, too.

Students of advertising history will have much to chew over with the news that Engine, the group that owns the WCRS advertising agency, is looking to buy a media company - and not just one of those fluffy strategic media offerings that are still where the fashion's at, but a rock-solid media-planning and buying company, which Engine hopes to integrate with its marketing services portfolio, 21st-century style. It's not quite a return to the old full-service agency model of a few decades ago, but it's not far off.

The rationale is simple. Engine already has a broad range of companies under one corporate roof: advertising, tick; direct marketing, tick; digital, sponsorship, and PR, tick. But there's real money to be made from media (buying, anyway) and no self-respecting communications group can afford to leave the media gap unplugged. So Peter Scott has his chequebook out, and running rough figures through the calculator he's going to shell out upwards of £15m for one of the handful of media agencies up for grabs.

The only problem is that it's a pretty short shopping list. Booth Lockett Makin and John Ayling & Associates are the only media agencies in London of any note. There are some pretty successful media agencies in the regions but as long-term investments they are more of a potential risk.

What's interesting is that WCRS, when it was a full-service agency, boasted some of the industry's best media talent, many of whom have now gone on to giddy media heights (David Pattison, Phil Georgiadis, Jonathan Durden, and Marc Mendoza, for instance).

Is Engine about to turn the wheel full circle? If it wants to be a fully rounded communications group, it has no choice. But somewhere there's a few people about to become rather rich. My money's on the BLM boys.

Claire Beale is editor of 'Campaign'

BEALE'S BEST: GUINNESS

You might have already noticed that the theme this week is enduring advertising icons. And, as mentioned elsewhere on this page, that's a subject Guinness knows a thing or two about.

In fact, if you check out the Guinness website (www.guinness.com), there's a celebration of "75 years of beautiful, inventive advertising". Surfers are invited to peruse an online gallery of the work, from the latest ad (pictured) to "past cultural icons". See, I don't just make this stuff up. You can even buy The Book of Guinness Advertising, and download "ad-inspired Guinness stuff" for your computer. By this point you might have worked out that Guinness is really quite proud of its advertising. All of which must makes it rather challenging to be Guinness's advertising agency. There's a lot to live up to. And if you're Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, the creators of one of the most admired ads of all time - the Guinness Surfers spot - keeping up such a cracking standard of work is not just challenging, it can also be crippling because, with each new ad, there's an inferred "follow that", not only from the client but also from the rest of the ad industry.

Factor in the fact that the previous Guinness blockbuster was of epic proportions, and the stakes riding on the new work are even higher. Remember Evolution, the blokes who walk backwards out of the pub and through man's history until they're grubby, wormy things in the water? It scooped the world's most coveted ad-award last year, the Grand Prix at Cannes. So, follow that.

The new ad, Hands, actually does a pretty fine job, in a low-key, rather classy way. It's simple but mesmeric: two hands dancing around the screen as they wait for the black stuff. And, this being 2007, we can all go on-line and make our own hand dances on the Guinness website.

It's clever, this ad, without trying too hard, beautifully choreographed and animated by Michael Schlingmann. The hands are a very nice addition to the Guinness advertising annals.

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