So brilliant, and so deadly

Balancing the surreal genius of B&H’s famous advertising campaigns with its fatal consequences

Limitations. Not always a bad thing for creativity. In fact, somewhat counter-intuitively, they often help.

But the rules for tobacco advertising (before it was banned in 2003) took restrictions to a whole new level. To the point where you couldn’t actually say anything. Or show people. Or even show remotely positive images of the product.

Ironically, it led to some of the most ingenious, beautiful ads to ever grace the streets of the UK. With cigarette brands Silk Cut and Benson & Hedges Gold battling it out during the 70s, 80s and 90s with many wonderful examples of the art of poster advertising.

The Surreal campaign for B&H dreamt up by art director Alan Waldie at CDP, kicked it all off. Each execution involved photographing the pack in a surreal situation. An approach that resulted in what was, in effect, sponsored public art on a grand scale, for well over 20 years. I would argue that the best examples from these dream-inspired campaigns are in no way inferior to the work of the great Surrealist masters Magritte, Dalí, Breton, Man Ray etc. They just happen to have a government health warning on them.

And for good reason. These ads were so effective that, according to some research, they killed about 3,000 people per year. (Stick that in your IPA effectiveness paper.) Hence the ban no doubt. Although imagine the lives saved if the government took that thinking to its logical conclusion and actually banned cigarettes. But I digress. Back to the ads.

The example shown here is by art director Nigel Rose. He thought it up in the bath, would you believe. But it’s not just the idea that’s great. The photography by Kevin Summers plays a huge role in the power of this execution (if you’ll pardon the term). Lighting, colour palette and composition are faultless. And I particularly love the Dadaist mess of typography and shaving foam.

Like most surreal art, you can dive into layers of meaning as the fancy takes you. Sigmund Freud would no doubt have a field day. It’s even an interesting comment on the notion of ‘brand’. Strip away all the type and graphics from the pack and it’s still obvious which brand you’re talking about. Interesting.

But that probably wasn’t first and foremost in the client’s thinking when approving this poster. What was first and foremost was allowing the agency to create fantastic work.

Yes that’s right, a client actually asking… no, insisting on greatness. And just to prove it, here’s a quote from Gallaher Tobacco’s Peter Wilson when first presented with the B&H campaign: “Make the art direction great, make the photography great, spare no expense.”

Blimey. How times have changed. If a client said that to me today I think I’d go into shock. Much better to shock the public though. That’s our job, remember? I mourn the end of this utterly brilliant campaign. I’m all for saving lives of course. But our lungs’ gain really is our eyes’ loss. 1

Paul Belford is the founder of agency Paul Belford Ltd. See and @belford_paul


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