Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Surreal Silk Cut Cigarette ads

UK cigarette advertisements in the 1980s and 90s, in particular the brands Silk Cut (with ads designed by Saatchi and Saatchi) and Benson & Hedges (with ads designed by Collett Dickinson Pearce), were some of the most sublime, surreal, mysterious and beautiful ads ever produced, precisely because British law prevented cigarette ads from associating cigarettes with status, youth, coolness or sexual attractiveness. So the ad men needed a different route. In fact, in the case of Silk Cut, there was nothing to tell you these were cigarette ads apart from the obligatory Government Health Warning, and, of course, the luxurious purple silk being cut in various surreal (and often threatening, occasionally possibly misogynistic) ways.*

(It's interesting to compare American cigarette ads of the same period which didn't have the same restrictions and were extremely dull and unimaginative, consisting mainly of smiling moronic Americans… with a cigarette in their mouths.)

Cigarette ads were the main inspiration behind me wanting to work in advertising in the late 1980s (which I eventually did, briefly). In the early 90s at college I used to smoke Silk Cut, partly to get the free cards they were giving away with them. There was a fellow student who also smoked Silk Cut and collected the cards as well and we used to exchange them to try and complete our sets. I never did, but here are the ones I did get; a fine collection of Silk Cut's billboard ads from the 1990s.

The 'mud people' (not my expression!) advert (bottom right) is a doctored Sebastiao Salgado (I think) photo, one of their best and certainly most controversial, and was actually banned at the time, on the grounds that it was condescending to ethnic minorities.

By the end of the campaign, in the late 90s (cigarette advertising was banned outright in 2003), the brand had achieved its aim, creating a seamless blend of art into advertising with thought-provoking, witty and striking images. And huge sales of cigarettes. It is perhaps morally wrong to lament on campaigns to promote cigarette smoking but the 1990s were a golden age for British advertising, when risks could be taken and fun could be had.

* Which sort of reminds me of the Hays Code in the States – from the 1930s up to the late 60s films weren't allowed to show explicit murder or sex ('Excessive and lustful kissing, lustful embraces, suggestive postures and gestures, are not to be shown'), so film-makers devised 'inventive' visual metaphors and other tricks, some not so subtle, such as a train entering a tunnel, to suggest the sexual act. In hindsight it was a blessing in disguise for directors such as Hitchcock, whose misogyny wasn't allowed full rein. It wasn't until the late 60s, when the code was abolished, that Hitchcock started making what he had probably wanted to do all along: having beautiful women being murdered in slow and painful ways. Witness the protracted murder in his nasty and tacky film Frenzy from 1972. Limitations often bring out the most creative in people.


Unknown said...

These particular ads were from the 1990s, not the '80s

Barnaby said...

True, thanks, amended.