Four Great 90s Adverts (and What You Need to Learn From Them)

Welcome to the wonderful world of 1990s advertising

Over the weekend, ITV’s CITV channel showed a collection of retro kids’ TV shows from the 90s. But while Pat Sharp and the Twins, Tregard and his hapless dungeoneers and Julia Sawahla’s Press Gang all triggered waves of fond memories from the decade that shame forgot, something key was missing. 90s adverts.

And not just for nostalgia purposes. Because while we’re all falling over ourselves to heap praise on the Old Spice Adverts, or to blast unfocused rage at the BT Infinity Students, we’ve forgotten some great adverts from the past.

Which is a crying shame. So rectify that failing now, with lessons from four great 90s adverts. And no, smartarse, the Guinness surfers don’t even make the list.

Lessons from Four Great 90s Adverts

I’ve chosen four adverts that you should all remember, selling products ranging from cereal to cigarettes. All of which have an important lesson to teach today’s great marketing and advertising minds.

Weetabix – Marie Celeste

The Lesson: Humour can sell even the most mundane products

As far as breakfast cereal goes, Weetabix is pretty boring. Compared to Frosties or Coco Pops, a bowl of Weetabix isn’t going to stoke the imaginations of any child of the 90s.

Until the advert above sailed into view. Weetabix might be dull, but it can help you see off a ship full of the meanest pirates ever pressed. And no amount of chocolate coated puffed rice can make that claim.

The concept is simple. Instead of appealing to people’s better nature with claims about health or keeping hunger at bay, entertain them with something fun, light-hearted and amusing. And throw in a catchy song to make sure people remember your product.

Just make sure you don’t go overboard – irritate your customers and you’ve got a 2010s Go Compare disaster on your hands.

Lambert and Butler – Billboards


The Lesson: Friendly banter gets people hooked

Alright, the nicotine in a pack of L&B probably hooked more people than Lambert and his butler, but the massive, regularly-updated billboard near my school ensured that when it came to making the second biggest mistake of my life, I did it with Lambert.

The concept is simple. In 2010s parlance, you’re bringing your customers into a circle of ‘banter’. They know Lambert’s a half-witted toff, they know the butler’s a sarcastic everyman, and they understand the relationship. But unlike with the toe-curling BT Family that ruined TV between 2005 and 2011, limiting the characters to two line stories kept people interested. They got the joke and wanted to be part of it.

And it also linked the concept of having a laugh with your mates to the concept of setting plants on fire and sucking on the smoke. Which doesn’t hurt when you’re selling a product that comes plastered in death threats.

Boddingtons – Put a Flake In It

The Lesson: Don’t take yourself too seriously

There’s a reason the Guinness surfing horses didn’t make the cut. Because that’s singularly the most pretentious advert in the history of the world. And pretentious adverts can put people off.

Self deprecation though, that gets a British audience on-side straight away. And nobody does self deprecation quite like Northerners.

The Boddies adverts of the time played on the fact that many adverts were glossy, high-concept short films that bear little to no relation to the product being sold. A trend that continues with modern perfume adverts. But by letting the viewer know that Boddingtons were just as baffled by the fat drummer hitting the beat as the rest of us, this advert immediately kindled a relationship.

Relationships sell. And who wants to be in a relationship with a self-important buffoon?

Tango – You’ve Been Tangoed

The Lesson: Nothing beats going viral

If you want to go viral, here’s what you need to do:

1) Introduce something that kids will copy in the playground.
2) Get your advert banned.

That’s all Tango did. Despite only running for a few weeks in 1992, the Orange Man advert caused a storm.

Kids in playgrounds up and down the country were gulping down Tango and then “Tangoing” each other, as dinner ladies, teachers and parents looked on in horror. The slap being removed and replaced with a kiss didn’t change anything. Within days, we all knew that a slap was a Tango, and a Tango was a drink. And the resultant outcry did nothing more than solidify that link in our thirsty young minds.

It’s just a shame that a combination of sugary drinks and face-slapping cost my generation quite so many teeth…


These lessons have (consciously or not) influenced a generation of marketers and copywriters. But they’re not the only things we learned from adverts in the 1990s. So don’t forget to share your favourite ad from that decade in the comments section below – and the lesson that you learned from it.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to paint my head orange and go slap somebody.

3 Comments comments for "Four Great 90s Adverts (and What You Need to Learn From Them)"

  1. David K at 6:06 pm

    Great nostalgiafest! I’d forgotten the Weetabix one. I think intrinsically unexciting foods often do best when they use humour to generate a feel-good factor around them. One of my favourites at the time was Bachelors Super-Noodles and the wasting away man:

    It has that easy-to-relate-to real relationship quality, plus a risque little pay-off just as you think the main joke has played out. Great stuff.

    Mind you, I’d disagree about avoiding irritation. So long as it’s the right kind of product this can pay off in spades. Go Compare has the highest brand recall factor of all the price comparison sites, and when someone’s sitting in front of their computer trying to remember one, that’s what counts. I wrote about it here –

    The early Boddies ads are my favourites, I think. The ice cream van one comes back strongly too. The one you post is so brilliant because it treads the line beautifully. On a first view it really could be a pretentious perfume ad – right up to the fish – but when you watch again the humour comes into relief at every shot.

  2. Andy at 4:20 pm

    In addition to the Lambert & Butler ads, do you remember the Regal cigs ones, featuring Reg & Al? Much the same thing… I think I remember the tag was “They smoke them cos their names on them”?

  3. Ben Lloyd at 5:00 pm

    Ha ha – the Tango ad was fantastic because it birthed an anti-social phenomenon. Could it explain the origins of modern variants ‘happy slapping’ and ‘smack camming’?

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