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Head of the class: the best of Guinness

The Independent's branding expert Peter York steps up to the bar and orders twelve commercials that have defined the black stuff



Guinness started as a major league advertiser with John Gilroy, the artist responsible for their best known 'classic' pre-television works, from the Thirties until well into the Sixties. The first press ad' in 1929, looked rather like a financial pages 'tombstone'. But from the early Thirties Gilroy, an 'in house artist' at S H Benson (the pioneering big British advertising agency) contributed inspired press and posters that helped make Guinness the most admired British advertiser ever. Two of his images belong in the world-wide all time Top 10. One is this, the 'man with the girder' casually hoisted on his shoulder for the 'Guinness for strength' campaign.


By the Thirties, Guinness had developed a distinctive advertising style: a familiar resonant form of words - originally "Guinness is good for you" - and a highly recognisable way of using them in posters. There was a particular typeface in red, a black and green border and cleverly painted hyper-realistic glasses. This meant that successive posters could develop variations within the template. The "good for you" was assumed, and the brand could move on to topical references. "Guinness Time" was a constant theme in posters through to the early 1950s. It started in 1931 with a Guinness-branded clock in Piccadilly Circus, an idea that was rolled out to provincial cities over the decade.


This is the other Gilroy classic, the first of a series which had a zoo-keeper rushing after exotic animals. There were kangaroos, pelicans, giraffes, ostriches and lions, all of them wily Guinness thieves. They're marvellously conceived, beautifully composed and executed with absolute simplicity. Gilroy, an RCA graduate who worked equally well with detailed line drawings and as a conventional portrait painter, knew how to simplify for the scale and speed of posters. Posters, he said, "are a kind of aesthetic meal-in-a-minute". The sea-lion proved the most durable of Gilroy's animals. A "live-action" version of this cartoon was used 20 years later as Guinness's first TV commercial.


"Swimblack" was the first Guinness commercial from its new 1998 agency, Abbott Mead Vickers. AMV had a new line on the brand "good things come to those who wait". It was all about the time Guinness took to pour and settle. This one was about an elderly Italian former swimming champion who still swims against the clock each year. Or rather against a long Guinness pouring. He's got 119.5 seconds to swim around a buoy in the local bay and sprint to the bar before the barman finishes pouring the pint. The barrel-chested old athlete sends the crowd wild; the local lads just love the idea that you can go on doing it for ever. This commercial introduces the big sex metaphor.


22 September 1955. What a night; our first UK TV commercials. Guinness was there. And like most of the other advertisers, a familiar static press theme was adapted for TV. Guinness went for Gilroy, with an attempt to bring the famous sea lion poster to life. They had a comedian playing the zoo keeper grappling with a fractious real sea lion they'd hired. The early TV and cinema films were themed as 'a Guinness poster comes to life', but these heavy-handed adaptations did the inspired originals no favours. Gilroy posters left lasting impressions, but the first commercials dragged them out in a painfully literal way. It took decades for Guinness to become a TV leader.


This was Guinness's first consciously "1980s" campaign, from its new agency Allen, Brady & Marsh. The target for the "Guinless" campaign was 24 to 34-year-old working-class men who admired Guinness's clever advertising, but didn't drink the product. So it concentrated on the problems of the Guinless men who'd gone without it for too long - the first of a decade of advertisers asking if you were getting enough - and reworked the 'Guinness is good for you' as 'Guinless isn't good for you'. It worked, in the short term, and was credited with stopping the stout's sales decline. But the double negative was seen as dangerous and the failure to present the product as hero was judged a mortal sin.


Here's the diagram of evolution leading from crouching ape to a giant pint of Guinness. It was part of the Eighties' "Pure Genius" campaign conceived by copywriter Mark Wnek, a regular contributor on these pages. The idea was that Guinness itself was "mysterious, elemental, nourishing, rewarding and relaxing", and the Guinness drinker was "masculine, independent and in control". The posters were clever and elegantly designed, but the related TV work seemed confused. Some treatments showed the elemental side of things - earth, sun, fire, water and rippling corn - others were meant to show the Guinness drinker as seriously sharp but introduced an accidental "wally factor".


This is so Eighties it hurts. A heavy dose of surrealism and a lot of break-for-the-border individualism. And of course Rutger Hauer. Guinness come to life symbolically, with his broad shoulders, black clothes and long reddy-blonde hair. A bit familiar, a bit foreign and faintly sinister in a sexy way. Hauer was the still centre of a series of surreal situations with dolphins, rooftops, and Prisoner-style houses. Famous directors - including Ridley Scott - worked on versions of the campaign until 1994. As it developed, sets became more extravagant. But Hauer's original pieces to camera (written by Mark Wnek) such as "it's not easy being a dolphin" are early classics of mass cool.


In the later Nineties, Guinness advertising went a bit ironic. It developed attitude. The new campaign, "Black and White", was all about not believing what you saw. It took famous quotations like Pete Townsend's "hope I die before I get old" from "My Generation" and set them in high-contrast black-and-white posters. This commercial, "Bicycle", was directed by Tony Kaye, the Nineties' most controversial commercials director. It is built around the feminist graffiti "a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle". It's the predictable women at work doing men's jobs - mining, drilling roads and driving lorries - and the wonderful image of the fish on the bicycle.


This Guinness ad won all the industry prizes (and from the public too; voted No 1 in Channel 4's 100 Greatest TV Ads). It combines an art history fantasy, the magnificent rearing white dream horse in the water you see in Delacroix or Walter Crane, with the Big Sur surfer ideal of waiting for the wave. And it took a lot of money and new technology to do it. The voiceover is a New Age mish-mash of Moby Dick and James Joyce - "he sits and waits... that what he does... tick... tock". Like the other post-1997 Guinness commercials, it's all about deferred gratification - the 120 seconds it takes to pour a Guinness and let it settle. Good things come to those who wait.


More deferred gratification. More crowd scenes. Betting on racing snails is a whimsical-sounding idea rendered big by superb production values and a dose of magic realism. They shot this commercial in Cuba, so it's got wonderful locations and extras. It's a race through the streets - a long-wait version of the Palio - with the shelled blobs initially stuck at the starting gate. But when they're off, they start to accelerate wildly - new computer cloning sees to that - and their supporters follow them through the streets and over the bridges. Those poor, foreign folk certainly know how to enjoy themselves. It has all the testosterone-soaked markers of recent Guinness advertising.


It's another competitive thing for men to do - lie around and have better dreams than each other, fuelled by Guinness. The Dream Club's a mystical, macho beatnik-revival kind of place, whose members have to dream the answers to awfully big questions. The champion dreamer sets out for the ultimate dream, with a slightly jazzy soundtrack. It could be wildly annoying, but the dream's beautifully done. It's all in an atmospheric dream city - Budapest - with rushing crowds, a dead-end street with a high, blank wall, a scrambling human pyramid, dancing dogs, horses rolling on their backs and astonishingly realistic computer-animated squirrels, who drink Guinness, of course.