10 cult commercials everyone should see

Matthew Holness has moved from acting into advertising

Matthew Holness began his career in comedy, working on some of the best of British cult TV, including writing and starring in Garth Marenghi's Darkplace.

More recently, he's moved from acting into advertising.

He made his debut as a commercial director in June this year, directing Tango's latest series of ads, and he has signed up to Moxie Pictures' roster, joining several other cult British directors including Richard Ayoade, Ben Wheatley and Edgar Wright.

In this article, Holness looks back across the decades of TV advertising and picks his favourite examples of the much-undervalued artform...

01. 'Watch Out, There's a Humphrey About' (1970s)

Muhammad Ali in the ads that psychologically scarred a generation of children
  • Watch the Frank Muir ad here
  • Watch the Rod Hull and Emu ad here
  • Watch the Muhammad Ali ad here

As a child, this Unigate campaign terrified me. The unseen, indefinable Humphrey. That horrid twirling straw… Grimly fascinating to young eyes, like the endless public information films it aired alongside. Apparently I collected the promotional merchandise too. Paper straws and a tie-in watch with red and white striped strap. No doubt I craved the reassuring comfort of milk.

02. Castrol GTX (1980s)

The Castrol GTX ad was weirdly sinister

I still watch this one. The haunting soundtrack is inspired, evoking an unearthly, almost primeval grandeur. While the visuals are entrancing, something unknown eludes us throughout, awakening a strange, intangible sense of awe. This is motor oil, isn't it? Fear sells.

03. Scotch Tape (1980s)

Who needs CG when you can have stop-motion charm?

There's something reassuring about spectacle. Perhaps quaint to modern eyes, the stop motion effects here still impress, and the macabre premise works wonderfully (video's staging a comeback, unlike us.) And although we still demand spectacle in our commercials, CGI struggles to charm half as much as this.

04. Yorkie (1970s-80s)

The Yorkie Man represented a generation's ideal of manliness

Yes, I admit it. This man and his lorry remain heroes to me. Whether the creators envisaged longevity or not, my appreciation of the traditional masculine qualities on display here has grown immeasurably over the years (along with my waistline).

Rugged strength, steely determination, earthy humour and good old-fashioned British grit. It's a wonderful snapshot of the world I grew up in, yet timeless in its depiction of the mythical modern-day knight. Arthurian in scale. The revered, reliable, steadfast Yorkie Man.

05. Denny's Mafia Pancakes

This is how to do a movie parody

A simple premise, beautifully executed. Most film parodies accentuate the ridiculous and exaggerate all subtlety to death. This one plays it straight and the pay-off is all the better for it. Sublime.

06. Volvo Van Damme Split

Is the stunt real or fake? You decide...

Spectacle again, but anything starring Van Damme gets my vote. This one both literally and metaphorically bridges the space between truth and fakery. Is it real or not? The ad seems keen to convince us that this colossal match of man and machine is genuine. Van Damme is superhuman after all, is he not? And those trucks don't do too much other than steer. Hence we're left guessing. Which is the perfect place to employ some subtle CGI. Now let's watch that again…

07. PG Tips Returns Home

Who doesn't love a monkey?

Nothing quite like a cosy 'cup of tea' ad. This one delights in all that the genre entails and celebrates it to extremes. Part sketch, part soap opera, this one has it all: love, betrayal, conflict, trauma, redemption and laundry. All dressed up as a figurative storm in a teacup. Superb.

08. Lurpak: Adventure Awaits

Huge production values + supreme silliness = ad heaven

Finally, spectacle without spectacle. Beautifully conceived and executed, with superb visuals and stupendous sound design. Just goes to show you can pitch "Kubrick, with butter" and strike gold.

09. Aldi Tea

A great example of less is more

Proving the maxim that less is more, this Aldi campaign could hardly feel simpler. Yet the careful balance of pace, performance and comic timing demonstrates a masterful degree of directorial acuity. All this plus 'edge'.

10. Moneysupermarket – Bootylicious

There is no escaping this buttock-centric ad

The arse one. It inhabits the same unsettling realm of the advertising universe that nightmare'd up the Kinder 'chocadoobie' Humpty and Hamlet's 'Baldy Man'. In a future dystopian Britain, the Ministry of Comfort will force our eyes open with electronic needles and transmit this vision of hell on a permanent loop. And why not? A modern classic.

Words: Matthew Holness

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