There's nothing like (a) Guinness. Since the first brewery opened in Dublin in 1759, Guinness has grown to become one of the key players in the global drinks market, becoming one of the most recognised and best-loved brands along the way. More so than any of its rivals, Guinness has assumed a kind of mythic status. From the distinctive blond-on-black look of the drink itself and its rich Irish associations (including the harp of Brian Boru adopted as a logo in 1862), through to the many slogans and graphics employed to advertise the product, the iconography of Guinness has entered the public consciousness to a degree somewhat disproportionate to the popularity of the drink itself. As advertising veteran Peter York has said: "Guinness has survived as a brand as well as a product, and that's what's enabled it to stay afloat when lots of its peers absolutely drowned."
It was an era of innocent advertising slogans that proclaimed the benefits of products - even when the products in question were alcohol or tobacco-based - when the Guinness account was handed to advertising agency S H Benson (later to become Ogilvy & Mather) in 1929. At S H Benson, Robert Gilroy became the artist responsible for most of the ad designs, the RCA graduate working alongside copywriters including Ronald Barton, Robert Bevan and author Dorothy L Sayers. Two key campaigns emerged, with both eventually running for almost 30 years each.
The first campaign, known as Guinness Zoo for obvious reasons, featured a whole array of animals, including sea-lions, kangaroos, ostriches, giraffes and the toucan that would become a mascot of sorts for the brand. Many of the designs depicted the creatures stealing Guinness from a hapless zoo keeper, a caricature of Gilroy himself. It was this campaign that spawned such classic phrases as 'Guinness is good for you' and 'My goodness, my Guinness'.
The other campaign was based around the slogan 'Guinness for strength', with accompanying illustrations from Gilroy featuring characters performing impressive, tongue-in-cheek feats of strength - two of the most memorable being one featuring a construction worker carrying a girder and another with a farm worker pulling a cart and horse.
This era also saw a series of ads that used little more than a slogan and a fairly realistic Gilroy illustration of a pint of Guinness. By retaining the same iconic imagery, typeface and colour scheme, the Benson creatives were able to evolve a whole series of adverts while maintaining and building brand recognition.
Although Gilroy left S H Benson in the 1940s, the artist's ties to Guinness continued, ultimately helping to define the brand for more than three decades through the creation of more than 100 printed ads and 50 posters. Thematically there were few major changes during this period - although Alice In Wonderland characters crept into some of Gilroy's posters, wartime themes naturally infiltrated the ads in the 1940s, and some post-war print advertising began to make greater use of photography.
But while the printed branding continued to follow the same aesthetic path on into the 1950s, it was to provide another solid period for the brand, with increased distribution and drinks sales afforded by the introduction of the now-familiar draught Guinness system. Guinness was also modernising in another crucial way, with the arrival of the first Guinness television commercial on 22 September, 1955.
Appearing in the first ever commercial break in the UK, the advert brought the familiar iconic art of Gilroy to life, with a Laurel and Hardy-indebted live action sequence featuring a real sea-lion and a zoo keeper. The result was crude and lacked the charm of the original art, but it was a milestone nonetheless.
By the 1960s, TV and cinema advertising was becoming the dominant form, and the creatives at S H Benson were creating ads of greater complexity and with a sense of style more attuned to the target audience. A typical spot would feature working-class folk going about their day in a mill or shipyard, and ending their day with a pint of the black stuff. But it was to be the 1980s when Guinness truly found its television voice.
The first taste of new-style Guinness branding came in 1983, with the Guinnless campaign - the result of a fresh collaboration with agency Allen, Brady & Marsh. Playing on the fact that the government had outlawed use of the 'Guinness is good for you' slogan, the Guinnless campaign instead informed viewers that 'Guinnless isn't good for you'. Ads and merchandising even referred to a fake self-help group dubbed Friends of the Guinnless. The sly approach was appreciated by the 20 to 30-something, working-class male target audience, helping to halt a decline in sales and reposition the drink as relevant once again.
And that's when things really began to get interesting. With the account bouncing back over to Ogilvy & Mather, copywriter Mark Wnek got his first crack at the brand, coming up with a new two-word tagline for print and TV advertising that, according to Wnek, labelled the drink "mysterious, elemental, nourishing, rewarding and relaxing". In truth, the ad campaign accompanying the Pure Genius slogan was slightly muddled, but there was no faulting the phrase itself. Or indeed what it inspired Wnek to do next.
The first ad featuring cult Dutch actor Rutger Hauer debuted in 1987 and neither Guinness nor TV advertising as a whole would ever be the same. Hauer's to-camera reading of Wnek's purposefully off-kilter dialogue added effortless cool to the mysterious and elemental equation of the first Pure Genius campaign, so establishing a new kind of post-modern, water cooler advertising that took the idea of pushing brand recognition rather than product further than ever before. Each new chapter in the Man With Guinness campaign was primarily designed to be a TV event and a social talking point, and so by association keeping Guinness firmly in the public consciousness.
Dressed from head to toe in black and topped off with a crop of blond hair, the strong, slightly sinister actor was also the personification of the drink itself. Hauer projected a cool and mysterious air, making the drink itself seem cool and mysterious. The impact on Guinness sales was astonishing, boosting sales by 22 per cent in the first three months and helping to shift an extra 37 million pints a year. Hauer, for his troubles, became a multi-millionaire through the delivery of such classic lines as "It isn't easy being a dolphin", and "On the subject of colour, I'm with Henry Ford."
Six years and more than 20 ads later and the man in black was finally retired. In his place came actor Joe McKinney, the dancing star of the Guinness Anticipation ad. Broadcast in 1994, the ad proved hugely popular, even catapulting the featured song - Guaglione by Perez Prado - to the top of the charts. But while it built on the theme of Guinness being a drink worth waiting for (it takes over a minute for the pint to pour and settle), it never spawned a whole campaign. A failed lawsuit from the director who was originally approached to create the ad over the ad's content (and its resemblance to an earlier short of his) was almost certainly a key factor.
1996 then saw the debut of the Black and White campaign, wherein director Tony Kaye took the brand further into the weird, with the subversive Old Man and Bicycle ads. Kaye said that the intention was "to make Guinness drinkers take a fresh look at the product, and to force non-Guinness drinkers to think again about a brand that they thought they had neatly pigeon-holed".
But it was Jonathan Glazer who was to set Guinness on its current course. In truth, the 1998 Swimblack spot, the first via new agent AMV BBDO, is indebted to the series of filmic Stella Artois campaigns that began in 1990 (Glazer himself had already directed the Last Orders ad for Stella at this point). But the manly tone and equally gruff voiceover clearly repositioned Guinness once again - returning to the working-class notion, while still depicting the brand as something clever and exotic - and provided a stepping stone to Glazer's next opus, 1999's Surfer.
Ironically, although it has been rated as the best TV ad ever, many ad pundits also cite Surfer as the ad that set Guinness advertising on the wrong path, one that has led to ever diminishing sales. Even former Guinness marketing director Julian Spooner believes it took the advertising too far away from the product itself. "It created a separation between Guinness, the advertising brand, and Guinness, the brand itself", he said. "So, great Guinness advertising did not equal great Guinness sales."
Some of the offerings created in the wake of Surfer have been more effective than others. 1999's Bet on Black ad was a memorably absurd partner for Glazer's epic, with gamblers in an unnamed Latin American country placing bets on high-speed racing snails. Next, Dream Club took a detour into the surreal, with a CG squirrel supping a pint of Guinness.
2006's 'noitulovE' has perhaps been the best of the bunch, managing to combine expensive visual effects trickery with a wryly humorous backwards narrative - a feat earning it more awards in 2006 than any other ad in the world. Elsewhere, however, there are signs that the ad people have been struggling. 'Believe' celebrated the heroics of its key character (Ireland's adventurer Tom Crean) more than the drink itself, as did Critical Assignment, a feature-length movie for the African market starring brand icon Michael Power. Some ads, such as Dot, and Hands, have even shied away from the challenge completely, opting instead for a low-key charm completely at odds with Guinness's grandstanding reputation.
Many factors influence the popularity of a drink like stout, so whether disassociation between product and ad brand has had a direct impact on Guinness sales remains open to debate. What is certain is that Surfer raised the bar almost impossibly high, with viewers expecting the clever, the surreal, and the epic from every new Guinness ad since. It's little wonder, then, that so many themes have been tried, new slogans coined, and so much computer generated animation employed in the years that have followed.
With a budget of £10 million, the Nicolai Fuglsig-directed Tipping Point is easily the most expensive Guinness ad to date. It's also another 'event' ad, with a tale of Argentinean villagers using all manner of items to create a massive domino effect that's technically impressive but arguably has little connection to the drink itself. Many ad pundits have criticised it as another expensive misstep. And yet the ten-year decline in Irish and UK Guinness sales has, for now, halted, with sales in the second half of 2007 even increasing by three per cent in English pubs (the beer market shrank by five per cent during the same period). Andrew Morgan, president of Guinness's owner Diageo Europe believes that Tipping Point has, along with other marketing efforts, including rugby sponsorship, directly contributed to this recovery.
It's likely, therefore, that the same approach to TV advertising will continue for some time yet. Not that the ad should be taken as a sign that Guinness has totally forsaken its roots. In print and on merchandising, at least, the toucan is back out of retirement after some 26 years, and eager to let drinkers know that now, more than ever, it's Guinness Time.