The enduring appeal of the advertising sitcom

As BT enters a new phase in its BT Family saga, moving away from the brand’s popular couple Adam and Jane to focus on Jane’s son Joe, we reflect on our love-hate relationship with advertising sitcoms…

As BT enters a new phase in its BT Family saga, moving away from the brand’s popular couple Adam and Jane to focus on Jane’s son Joe, we reflect on our love-hate relationship with advertising sitcoms…

The ad sitcom is a commercial vehicle that has been with us for decades. The quintessential example of the genre (in the UK at least) is the Oxo Family, who featured in 42 spots for the gravy granules between 1983 and 1999. The ads saw Lynda Bellingham playing the Oxo Mum, who presided over meals and deftly steered her family through the everyday trials of growing up. The success of the ads lay in their soapy quality, with the series ending poignantly, as all the kids leave home.

Bellingham in fact wasn’t the first Oxo matriarch: this role was taken by Katie, a perfect wife who was a dab hand with a gravy cube, appearing in adverts for the brand from the late 1950s until the 1970s. Watching the ads on YouTube now, they seem achingly of their time: in each, Katie is shown cooking up a different meal featuring Oxo before presenting it to her husband, as the voiceover announces ‘Oxo gives a meal man appeal’.

Also of their time is the Gold Blend couple, a highly flirtatious duo who based their courtship around their mutual admiration for a particular brand of instant coffee. The 80s ads, which starred Anthony Head and Sharon Maughan, took the idea of the commercial as soap opera to ridiculous new heights, as audiences were left debating whether they would ever get together.

If such a situation arose in an ad today, the brand would undoubtedly ask the audience to decide what happened next, via an online poll. This was the manner in which BT ruled on Adam and Jane’s fate, with the audience invited to vote on the outcome of various key moments of their relationship, including Jane falling pregnant and the planning of their wedding. These polls were hugely popular, with 1.6 million people voting for Jane’s pregnancy alone. Despite this, the spots remain divisive and wisely BT limited the outcomes that could be chosen for the couple’s future (leaving out the option ‘torn apart by wolves’, a likely preference for some, judging by some of the less favourable online comments about the campaign).

Adam and Jane were not BT’s first foray into an ad soap opera: in the late 80s Maureen Lipman starred as Beattie (see what they did there?), a stereotypical Jewish mother, who used her telephone mostly to nag her family, in amusing fashion. While the anodyne coupling of Adam and Jane may have seen the humour of these early ads replaced with sentimentality (and awkward comments about modems as BT struggled to emphasise it is not just a phone company anymore), at least the client was brave enough to choose a modern family set up, with Jane a divorced mother of two kids (unlike a recent Weetabix ad, which, while very funny, could have been made in the 1950s in terms of the gender roles it espoused).

The complex nature of the family in fact fed many of the storylines, with Adam meeting Jane’s ex and the duo even embarking on a long-distance relationship (helped along by BT’s internet service, natch). But now, the Adam and Jane part of the series has come to an end, replaced by a new scenario based around Jane’s eldest son Joe going to university, where he will share a home (and BT modem) with flatmates. The first TV ad has yet to air, but BT has released three ‘preview’ films online, introducing Joe’s new roomies. At first glance, Simon and Anna seem deliberately annoying, with their storylines playing on certain clichés of studentdom and flat-sharing. What they are not, however, is poor: as Simon shows the viewer around a flat entirely lacking in damp and instead awash with mod cons, it seems that BT is aiming its products firmly at students who won’t be struggling to pay their phone bills.

While the advertising sitcom may aggravate some, it clearly strikes a chord with many viewers, and with social media now readily available to spin out a story far beyond the possibilities of the small screen, this old-fashioned ad formula, if handled correctly, still has legs in the digital age. To be successful, the ads require strong, plausible characters, placed in situations that are recognisable in the modern world, or at least to a brand’s target consumer. Get that right, and the story will run and run, whether you like it or not.

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