Benson & Hedges poster
Benson & Hedges poster
Agency: CDP. Year: 1985.
Art director: Nigel Rose. Photographer: Kevin Summers.
Agency: CDP. Year: 1985. Art director: Nigel Rose. Photographer: Kevin Summers.
Limitations. Not necessarily a bad thing for creativity. In fact they often help.

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

It lead to some of the most ingenious, beautiful ads to ever grace the streets of Britain. With the two main cigarette brands Silk Cut and Benson & Hedges Gold battling it out, mostly during the eighties, with many wonderful examples of the art of poster advertising. Shouldn’t ad agencies ask themselves why there is nothing remotely in this league when we look at the production values of today’s posters? Isn’t it worth fighting for?

The campaign for B&H was dreamt up by art director Alan Waldie and writer Mike Cozens, in 1978 at CDP. 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. In terms of both geography — these posters appeared in every city, and also sheer size — a 48-sheet poster measures a whopping 20ft by 10ft. What an incredible blank canvas. The best examples from these 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 the rather strange typography of a government health warning tagged on to the base of the image.

And for good reason. These ad campaigns worked so well that, according to research, they killed about three thousand people per year. (Stick that in your IPA effectiveness paper.) Hence the ban.

The example shown here is by art director Nigel Rose. He thought it up in the bath, of course. 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. Every dollop of shaving foam is expertly placed. I particularly love the Dadaist/Futurist mess of type and foam. And like most surreal art, you can dive into layers of meaning as the fancy takes you. Freud would no doubt have had a field day with the campaign.

This particular ad is even an interesting comment on the notion of ‘brand’. Strip away all the type and graphics from the pack and it’s still obvious who you’re talking about.

But I doubt that was first and foremost in the client’s thinking when approving this work. Their priority was simply allowing the agency to create fantastic ads. 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 cost controller said that to me today I think I’d go into shock.

Much better to shock the public though. That’s our job, remember? And it’s what these ads did. I mourn the end of this brilliant campaign. Naturally I’m all for saving lives. But our lungs’ gain really is our eyes’ loss.