The Magazine's Review of Advertising
Mother, child, and furry green friend
Not many people, looking back on their career, could honestly claim to have changed their industry. John Webster, who died last week, was one of those who could.
What made John Webster stand out from the advertising crowd in the 1970s, says one of his long-time colleagues, James Best, was that he knew an advert was an uninvited visitor in people's living rooms.
"Nobody's asked you in," he says, "and John's particular magic was to realise that if you're going to communicate with people, rather than shouting at them, why not amuse them and even charm them? If they like you and enjoy what you're about, then they might be prepared to listen to what you've got to tell them."
It was an approach which Webster employed as creative director of advertising firm DDB London and its predecessors for more than 30 years.
And it was an approach which left him the most remarkable legacy, including many of the most memorable and well known adverts and characters ever seen on television.
Webster's mould-breaking advert, says Best, was for Cadbury's Smash - instant mashed potato. It was voted TV ad of the century by Campaign Magazine in 1999, and ITV's Best Ad Ever in 2005.
The Martians, who didn't come to threaten the Earth but rather discover what Earthlings ate, laughed helplessly when it was reported to them what lengths they went to in eating potato.
Spud you like
"That idea was such a shock at the time," says Best. "Instead of saying 'It's so delicious', and 'Gosh it tastes good', he started from a completely different place by saying let's take the Mickey out of buying big lumpy vegetables, boiling them, mashing them...
"But how do you ridicule that without telling people they're stupid? The answer was to invent some Martians. Make them funny and give them infectious giggles."
One of his most memorable creations was the Sugar Puffs' Honey Monster.
"God knows what sort of monster the Honey Monster was," says Best. "Basically the advert was a nutritional message, Sugar Puffs at the time being the sort of thing mothers were keen for their children to eat. The task was to advertise Sugar Puffs to mums in a way that kids would enjoy.
"Basically the relationship between the Honey Monster and the man, played by Henry McGee, was that of a mother and child relationship. The man was responsible for what the monster was eating, and what the child wanted was honey. So he would cry 'Tell them about the honey mummy'."
Finding human characteristics in animals was one of Webster's strengths, again on show in his creation of George the Hofmeister bear, who wore a bad hat and a worse jacket but represented a cool bloke in the pub. As such it would probably not be allowed under current advertising rules, but in the 1980s, George encouraged a generation of drinkers who were discovering the joys of lager to "follow the bear".
Lager louts followed the bear
"This was very obviously a man in a very silly bear costume," says Best. "No-one was pretending that they had suspended their disbelief."
But, he says, George effectively became the Fonz. The whole thing had a tenuous connection to Hofmeister, which had a bear on its logo. Hofmeister "didn't really have much else going for them," says Best, and George eventually came a cropper over media concern on lager louts - the binge drinkers of the 80s.
More human characteristics were on show in other creations including the Cresta polar bear, and Kia Ora's collection of birds trying to be dogs so that they could taste orange juice ("It's too orangey for crows!"). The self-consciously early Disney-style of animation for this advert made it appear to a young audience that this drink must have been around for decades and had duly stood the test of time.
Kia Ora crows: I'll be your dog
But it wasn't just animals who felt his magic touch. The news this week that Golden Wonder has gone into administration is a reminder of the rise of Walker's Crisps - the face of which is undoubtedly Gary Lineker, a role which was created by Webster.
"Gary Lineker was most famous as the nice guy, the footballer who'd never got a red card in his whole career. He'd just come back from playing football in Japan, and he was a Leicester boy which is where Walker's Crisps came from.
The idea for the advert, titled Welcome Home, was that the crisps were so delicious they could even make Gary Lineker become villainous.
"It certainly gave Gary a lot of very positive exposure from which he has made the most - but he was a very good actor too."
The same was true of Jack Dee in another Webster ad - the deadpan "No Nonsense" campaign for John Smith's. "Jack Dee was already a kind of cult comic but I don't think he would have become so quickly nationally famous without the push of John Smith's," says Best.
Webster is acknowledged as having won more advertising awards than anyone else. But Best says he "never demanded his name in lights or above the door, or his own office. He was very unassuming, very grounded. He enjoyed success and remained competitive and certainly fought for his ideas."
Ad Breakdown is compiled by Giles Wilson.
Add your comments on this story, using the form below.
Ad breaks will be a much duller place without him, but my wife will be pleased as she'll have more chance of getting a brew...
Jon Cross, Manchester
I never met John Webster, let alone work with the man, but I was extremely upset upon learning of his death. His creations formed a memorable part of my childhood and were a driving force behind my choice of advertising as a career. He truly transformed the world of marketing and his work will form the gold standard in our industry for years.
Richard Hayter, London
Yes, Webster's ad campaigns were brilliant but none of the products were actually good for you. We need to look beyond the catchphrases and loveable characters and see the message, especially given the rise of obesity, binge-drinking etc
Peter, Manchester, UK
The Smash ad was great because the laughter really was infectious. As someone from Huddersfield it is even more special because in one of them, there is a line that says 'it is a place called Huddersfield' and they fall about laughing! Funnily enough in real life when you tell someone that you are from Huddersfield it does often elicit a comedy response - so thanks to John for the entertainment - and no I have never ever bought Smash.
Anna Bialkowska, York
Most people only come up with one, maybe two brilliant ideas, it appears Webster's ideas and talent were limitless. The top ads I can recall, apart from the Guinness ads, are all his.
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