The Big Lie – the complete book online - 11 Humour

Article Index


Chapter 11

A Phoney Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum


In the beginning was the pun. Samuel Beckett, Murphy

In the National Newspaper Campaign awards of 1995 a distinguished panel of national newspaper editors, advertising agency creative directors, and leading advertisers was unanimous in its selection of Moet & Chandon champagne for producing the best colour advertisement of the year. According to the award announcement, “They considered what makes a great colour ad. Great colour, of course. Lots of style, excellent artwork and reproduction . . . that goes without saying. But forging a strong message for a brand name as powerful as Moet & Chandon required a blend of quality graphics and memorable words”. Those words were: “Should the power of the press be limited? Moet & Chandon think so”. Beneath was an illustration, in the style of Mucha, showing workers pressing grapes in a vat.

If you ask any non-professional to write an advertisement, he will start by trying to think up a punning headline. So will most professionals. But if either puts together an advertisement to sell his own property – his car, his television set or his house – in a classified advertising section, it will be a model of product description. Why is this?

An astonishingly high proportion of press advertisements depend on a pun in the headline. Because it confounds expectation, the pun is hard to ignore. To our atavistic senses it’s the verbal equivalent of a sudden movement in the underbrush. So it’s a reliable way of catching the attention of the casual reader. You don’t need it in a classified ad, because the reader is in hunter mode. He’s looking for something particular and scans the columns with close attention.

Literary devices have always been particularly popular in British advertising. Rhymes are now rare, but alliteration remains common, while puns are omnipresent. Attitudes towards puns are highly subjective. They can distract or even backfire and, like farts, most people tolerate their own more than other people’s. While the reader may thus disagree with the following specific examples, puns can usefully be categorised under the three Rs: routine, ridiculous, or relevant.

Routine puns are the copywriter’s crutch. He has nothing to say, but it will make what he writes look like an ad. How many business-oriented ads have you seen with the limp wordplay, “We mean business”? It’s the wrist-jerk reaction of the time-pressed hack confronted with an assignment from a boring business-to-business client. Similar examples of routine wordplay are:


A 1997 poster for Nat West bank with the headline “We’ve just won Mortgage Magazine’s Best Overall Lender” over a picture of a washing-line strung with overalls of various colours.

A 1995 press advertisement with the headline “Time to prune the cost of home insurance” over a picture of pruning shears. The copy, after a half-hearted reference to gardens getting out of control, eventually gets around to the real story: you can save the 30 per cent broker’s commission by dealing with Direct Line home insurance.

On 1990s tube cards Abbot ale believed it a sufficient brand promise to advertise the fact, in old English script with an illuminated capital letter, that it was “Now in Abbottle”.

The first page of a 1994 double-page magazine spread showed a conventional photograph of a table set for an outdoor lunch in a Spanish landscape, with a bottle of Tio Pepe sherry over the headline “The Spanish know what’s real Spain”. The advertiser paid as much again for an adjacent full colour page, to add, under a picture of a sombrero, “And what’s old hat”.


Routine puns often lure copywriters into emphasising the negative. A press advertisement for motor car accessories supported the headline “Halford’s take the load off your mind”, with an illustration of a heavy load crushing the top of the driver’s car. Others are simply verbal dead ends, as in “Wedgwood – wouldn’t you?”

The second category, the ridiculous pun, carries a whiff of excruciating embarrassment that may well cling to the advertiser:


A 1995 Christmas poster for the retailer Books etc: “Where Prices No Longer Reign Dear”.

A 1996 campaign in the London underground for the airline Braathens advertised its flights from Gatwick to Norway with gnomic examples such as: “Norwegian Would” and “I Did It Norway”.

A 1997 billboard for Conqueror letter paper showed a caricatured businessman in a bowler hat impaled on a paper spike. The tortured connection for this grisly presentation was: “Use our paper or on your letterhead be it”.


Apart from drawing the eye, the above self-indulgences are pointless, even counter-productive in motivational terms. But some puns are relevant. By inducing the reader to solve a little puzzle, they promote involvement in the central message. Why does a small van have Mr Sam Widge painted on it? Why is a chain of petrol stations called Q8? Why did a 1996 poster for the British Heart Foundation read “Britain’s number one lady-killer isn’t a man”?


A tube poster for the London to Cambridge railway line showed the usual graphic representation of a tube line linking those two cities, but without the intermediate stations. The headline was appropriate to the message: “We’ve pulled out all the stops”.

A 1995 press advertisement for HSBC financial services showed a picture of a tree with the line, “We’ve got branches in places even we’ve hardly heard of”. A desultory pun, it had been used more meaningfully twenty years previously in a campaign for the Trustee Savings Bank with the headline “Our roots are our branches”, to position the company as locally responsive.


The British fascination with the pun is, of course, not confined to advertising. It’s a favourite ploy of the newspaper headline writer, and reflects a general irreverence towards and trivialisation of almost anything serious. The trailers which appear before the commercial breaks on Channel 4 News in order to direct attention towards the next news item are invariably puns, nodding and winking to mass culture. On the day Nelson Mandela was released from prison, heralding the downfall of apartheid in South Africa, this news was announced by reference to the game of Monopoly, “Get out of gaol free”. In 1994, on the occasion of the kidnapping and murder of an Israeli soldier by the extremist Palestinian terrorist organisation Hamas, a strong stomach and an acquaintance with Latin were required to share the whimsy in the trailer: “Amo Hamas Amant”.

Curiously, the verbal pun also appears in visual presentations, where there are far better ways of attracting attention. Many television advertisements are nothing more than an elaborated verbal pun. A mid-1990s commercial devoted thirty seconds to portraying a glamorous, leggy woman in peril, her short red dress riding up her thighs as she slid off the roof of a tall building. There was no voice-over, no explanation, until the camera revealed that it was all happening on a film set. A red Rover car drove into the final frame accompanied by the slogan, “The excitement is unreal”.

Other illustrated tricks defy comprehension. A 1995 television commercial for the Visa Delta credit card was devoted to a cascade of verbal riddles. Words or syllables pronounced in the voice-over commentary were illustrated by visual puns: a sculling oar for “or”, a man wearing a false wig as the announcer said “to pay”. A 1990s press campaign for Pernod hijacked a convoluted cartoon feature which appeared regularly in broadsheet newspapers read by the educated classes, called “Lost Consonants” (© Graham Rawle), which pictured amusing situations suggested by such misprints. One advertisement headlined “He had been warned that Paris was full of dangerous rivers” showed a man in a Renault car stranded in flooded street surrounded by sharks’ fins, to justify the pay-off line: “In Paris, you drop the ‘d’.” Was it really necessary to go to such lengths to ensure that the well-educated readers of these newspapers knew how to pronounce the name of this pastis, or did agency and client simply find it all a good giggle?

Starting with the use of the pun to gain attention, the idea has got abroad that advertising is supposed to be funny. Distracting, even destructive ideas are routinely introduced for the sake of a weak joke. The text of a 1999 newspaper advertisement for Le Creuset’s new frying-pan offered a perfectly convincing proposition: because the bottom is ridged, food fried within it will contain less fat. The headline, too, was compelling: “The most effective way of losing weight”, except that the copywriter felt it necessary to add three more words: “since the guillotine”. Over the photograph of a large, empty frying-pan, the effect of this idea is revulsion.

A 1996 commercial reprised some familiar images, beginning with a girl mouthing a simulation of fellatio of the sort pioneered twenty years earlier by Cadbury’s Flake – wetting her lips with her tongue, pouting, daintily removing crumbs from her lips. It was a close-up black-and-white image and her hair and make-up was from the 1960s. When the camera pulled back to reveal her bare shoulders, another cultural reference intruded: it mimicked the well-known photograph, widely published during the Profumo scandal, of the notorious prostitute Christine Keeler straddling a curvaceous Arne Jacobsen plywood chair, and so the assumption was the girl was naked. Finally, the voice-over revealed the point of this pastiche. The ad was for a brand of bread: “The original granary – it tastes great with nothing on”.

In a late 1990s commercial, again shot in moody black and white, we saw a stereotypical old-age pensioner in his mean home with his budgie, his goldfish and a set of false teeth in a jar. As he dressed for a formal wedding, in black and white, the Pete Townshend quote “Hope I die before I get old” flashed onto the screen. The action cut to the steps of a registry office, where the old geezer was with his new bride, a heavily pregnant young blonde. The meaning we’d been waiting for appeared on the screen: “Not Everything in Black and White Makes Sense”. In its elaborate visualisation of simple wordplay, this commercial went to great lengths simply to remind viewers that Guinness is black and white, while associating the drink with an image it had been trying to escape for the past forty years – the downmarket tipple of destitute old people keeping warm in the corners of pubs.

Puns are a symptom. The infection is the idea that advertising has to be entertaining and funny. Even if you’re selling funeral services. This has spawned a whole genre of advertising conventions which the audience expects, the “creatives” enjoy and the clients accept, or sometimes demand. The very popular notion that people have to like advertising in order for it to be effective is of relatively recent origin and by no means universally acknowledged. A great deal of classic American advertising before the Second World War was based on painful social embarrassment, e.g. “Your best friend wouldn’t tell you”. Incessant jingles were often extremely irritating. The advertising gurus serving clients such as Pepsi-Cola and the American Tobacco Company believed the way to gain new customers was to wear resistance down by attrition. In 1955, when commercial television first came to Britain, a great deal of American TV advertising was aggressively hard-sell. The British government was apprehensive about public reception of the new commercial service and exerted pressure on the first TV contractors to curb advertising excesses. Concern was so great that in the early years of its franchise Rediffusion commissioned the Schwerin Research Corporation to pre-test every commercial aired on the station. Although Schwerin threw in its usual measurements of effect on brand-switching behaviour, what the contractor wanted to know was simply whether viewers liked the commercial. These data were used to allay government fears, and naturally provided a direction for copywriters.

If the objective of advertising is to entertain, the practitioners have done a good job. In its 1992 survey of public attitudes towards advertising, the Advertising Association reported that three out of four people approved of and liked ads – a proportion that had grown steadily over the past twenty years. The consumer has no difficulty in evaluating advertising. He judges commercials in the same way he judges television programmes. For him a “good” ad is one which is entertaining or emotionally satisfying. That is hardly surprising. After all, the consumer has no vested interest in the more businesslike objectives of the advertisements. Media commentators take the same line. The Independent ventured a compilation of the “Worst Ads of All Time” in 1994. Many of them were straightforward sales pitches, enduring campaigns by personalities the writer found unappealing: former “Brain of Britain” Ted Moult pitching Everest double-glazing, TV actor Gareth Hunt selling Nescafé, the actress Nanette Newman promoting Fairy Liquid, and, inevitably, entrepreneur Bernard Matthews appearing in his own commercials for his “bootiful” turkeys (see Chapter 2). This superficial aesthetic prejudice is not surprising. What is astonishing is that professional advertising people share such views. Humorous commercials regularly top the lists in the many competitions in which the advertising industry votes itself awards. Aesthetic considerations also play an important role in their judgement of what constitutes good advertising. In public pronouncements, commercials for laundry detergents are regularly panned, because they are too blatant, or uninteresting. But the greatest sin in the creative handbook is to be uncool. The professionals are particularly scathing about anything unsophisticated, and with poor production values. The all-American Wrigley’s Doublemint chewing gum commercials with their innocent boy-girl situations always produce a mocking laugh in British advertising circles.

Even in terms of identifying new trends in their own industry, the advertising professionals have poor judgement. When a new campaign promoting the Renault Clio appeared in the early 1990s, commentators in the advertising industry press found it cringe-making, criticising the sentimental humour of the character portrayals of “Nicole” and “Papa”, their coy conspiracies, even the romantic Provençal setting. However, audience surveys nominated this series as the most popular car commercial on television in 1993 and again in 1994, and the advertiser was well pleased, as Renault sales almost doubled during this period. Whether the advertising had anything to do with this was unproved, but it did send the advertising agents for rival car manufacturers scrambling tardily to produce their own romantic mini-dramas.


Doubtless humour can provide a suitable ambience for effective persuasion; however, many advertising professionals have clearly substituted the means as the end.



Like this website?

Subscribe to our mailing list to be kept informed of new videos, blogs and articles.
Please enter your email address and hit return.