Under the microscope: Lessons from iconic British TV advertising

  • 0

TV is a huge part of everyday life, with iconic British soaps like Coronation Street and Eastenders still going strong today. Alongside these shows, certain British adverts have made a lasting impression on viewers. We all have memories of particular ads that just won’t leave our heads, and some have claimed space as an essential part of British culture.

These iconic British adverts can be a source of inspiration for marketers, alongside digital marketing books and social media. From BOGOF deals to drumming gorillas, here’s what we can learn from the iconic marketing campaigns that have appeared on our screens…

1) Mascots make money

118 118

Let’s start with the 118 men – no one can forget those strong moustaches and tiny red shorts. Although phone directories haven’t been commonplace in a good few years, it was hard to turn on the TV in the early 2000s without their presence.

Such was the impact of the 118 118 men, they even became a popular fancy dress outfit that you might still see out today. The two mascots featured in many different adverts, and created spoofs of other content, such as the movie ‘Rocky’ and even one Honda campaign. Despite the differences in ad themes, the two mascots were easily recognisable, and the numbers on their shirts were an unshakable link back to the brand. This effective campaigning positioned 118 118 at the top of their industry thanks to their memorable mascots.

Compare the Meerkat

You’d think Russian meerkats would make a rather strange figurehead for a comparison site. But, Compare The Market took a risk with a play on words and then continued to roll with it. Their successful campaign, Compare the Meerkat, first introduced Aleksandr Orlov, a talking meerkat with his own website – comparethemeerkat.com.

The campaign has since skyrocketed, and Aleksandr and his Meerkat coworker, Sergei, have gained somewhat of a celebrity status. They have hundreds of thousands of social media followers, and have even established detailed backstories for their lives. An insurance comparison site isn’t likely to amass lots of social media followers for its riveting content, so creating interesting mascots is a great workaround for attracting audiences.

2) We’re a nation of animal lovers

Three’s moonwalking pony

What are two things the nation loves? Animals and Fleetwood Mac. Three combined the two in a genius marketing campaign that depicted a moonwalking pony to Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Everywhere’. Their ad carried the tagline ‘Silly Stuff. It Matters.’ Clearly taking a step away from the more technical side of their services, the brand decided to appeal to public opinion with this lighthearted ad.

The video gained over 3 million views within a week of its release, and around 250,000 shares. A clever addition from Three was the hashtag #DancePonyDance, which trended on Twitter and helped circulate the video across other social media platforms. If there’s one thing we can learn from Three’s viral campaign, it’s that animals doing funny things will always get clicks and shares.


Churchill Insurance really knew how to play up the patriotism with their bulldog mascot. Well known for his catchphrase ‘Oh yes!’, Churchill the dog still holds a place in Brits’ hearts with his famous nodding head. The Churchill craze was so widespread that lots of Brits bought their own mini nodding bulldog as a car accessory. This associated Churchill the dog with cars and everyday life, meaning Churchill Insurance was impossible to forget about. He even featured in 22 pantomimes around the UK back in 2009, proving he was more than just a brand representative. Creating a lovable animal mascot really worked in Churchill’s favour, establishing them as an iconic part of British history and culture.

3) Humour can send you viral


When you think of memorable marketing campaigns, it’s usually the funniest ones that immediately stick out. One example is Moneysupermarket’s ‘Dave’s Epic Strut’ ad, which featured a businessman strutting down the street in hot pants and heels. Dave felt so epic after saving money on his car insurance that he sassily struts his stuff to ‘Don’t Cha’ by The Pussycat Dolls. The brand’s image isn’t lost in this ad though, as a deep voiceover says ‘You’re so Moneysupermarket’. After receiving an immediate boost in website traffic, the brand has continued to release humorous ads with the tagline ‘You’re so Moneysupermarket’.

But, there’s always a risk that comes with experimental marketing campaigns. For instance, ‘Dave’s Epic Strut’ attracted over 1,500 complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) claiming ‘overtly sexual’ content. The ASA, however, did not uphold these claims and deemed the advert not offensive. The advert gained lots of press coverage for its bold approach, which was only boosted by the outrage. Not everyone has the same sense of humour, but implementing it can certainly go far in running an effective campaign.

Cadbury’s Drumming Gorilla

Possibly one of the most ridiculous campaigns to hit the screens, Cadbury’s drumming gorilla ad is also one of the best performing. Viewers were drawn in by the randomness of the ad, and it went viral quickly.

In fact, the campaign was a massive lifesaver for Cadbury, who previously had to recall over a million chocolate bars because of a salmonella scare. Luckily for Cadbury, the campaign received an overwhelmingly positive response from the public, and even won the top prize at Cannes Lions in 2008. But on top of its viral outreach, Cadbury also benefited from a 10% sales increase. This ad was undoubtedly an example of PR done right, and put Cadbury back in the public’s good graces.

4) Empathy can do a lot

John Lewis’ bear and the hare

It’s amazing how much impact advertisements can have on the British public. Once a certain time of year rolls around, you’ll often find eager Brits anticipating the newest John Lewis ad. There’s a reason for this – the brand’s ad campaigns target nostalgia and empathy to really tug at their audience’s heartstrings.

One of their most iconic campaigns, ‘The Bear and the Hare’, was accompanied by Lily Allen’s cover of ‘Somewhere Only We Know’ and follows the friendship of a bear and a hare. A study found that 48% of people who viewed the advert felt ‘intense positive emotions’, compared to an average 29% for other UK advertisements.

Both the song and the animation were a great success, sending Lily Allen’s cover into the charts. John Lewis was on everyone’s minds, with the advert playing on Christmas TV programming, and the song constantly played on the radio. From their clever campaigning, John Lewis has become synonymous with the festive season in the UK. Their yearly ad campaigns are proof that advertisements don’t need to be flashy and obnoxious to be effective.

5) Earworms are the perfect tool

There’s no better way to stay on someone’s mind than with a catchy jingle or phrase. Some of the biggest brands in the world have memorable catchlines, and when done right, they can skyrocket in popularity.


Car insurance has a wide target audience – car drivers live all over the country and exist within a very broad age bracket. So, how could GoCompare design a campaign that would appeal to so many people? Their inescapable advert ‘Tenor’ featured an opera singer telling viewers to choose GoCompare for insurance comparisons.

The advert has been criticised as annoying, but its longevity and GoCompare’s success seem to outweigh the complaints. Whether you view it as light-hearted fun or an irritating nuisance, audiences across the UK have probably had the tune stuck in their head at some point. The Guardian even reported that the catchy jingle was the most-played music in adverts in the whole of 2012. Annoying or not, it was certainly effective.

SafeStyle ‘Buy One Get One Free’

Although everyone loves a good sing-song, it’s not necessarily just songs that can be catchy. Many Brits will remember SafeStyle’s TV frontman Jeff Brown, who told viewers that ‘You buy one, you get one free’.

‘Buy One Get One Free’ aka ‘BOGOF’ is a common marketing tactic used by brands to sell products. However, SafeStyle’s comedic adverts firmly planted their ads into the minds of the British public whenever they heard the phrase. Maybe it was the strong Northern accent, or the bizarreness of the ad on the whole, but this advert soon became famous (or infamous) for its phrase.

SafeStyle recently tried to move away from their previous campaigns, taking a more serious approach. But, it’s safe to say that many Brits will remember them for their iconic marketing campaign back in the day.

6) Brits love a celeb cameo

PG Tips

PG Tips ads famously featured dynamic duo Monkey and Al. Although Monkey became a popular mascot for the brand, it was Johnny Vegas’ portrayal of Al which really left a lasting impression. The comedian’s strong Lancashire pronunciation of Monkey as ‘Munkeh’ was widely quoted and associated with the brand. Although it’s not everyone’s tea bag of choice, it’s hard to think of a more iconic campaign for the quintessential British beverage.

What’s so clever about celebrity mascots for brands is that they’re going to appear in non-advertisement spaces. Johnny Vegas has appeared on a wide range of TV shows, from Celebrity Gogglebox to Benidorm. We’re well aware of Vegas’ success as a comedian, but there have also definitely been moments of: “Oh look, it’s the PG Tips guy!” One of Vegas’ most associated catchphrases is indeed ‘Munkeh’, so PG Tips did a great job in establishing their brand identity with a popular comedian.

Just Eat and Snoop Dogg

Just Eat were finding that lots of consumers found their jingle annoying, so they needed a way to make it cooler. And what better way than enlisting the help of Snoop Dogg?

Creating a rap version of the brand’s jingle, the ad undeniably made a fun watch on screens. Thanks to this move, the brand saw a 50% increase in consumers who said they were willing to order from Just Eat. Two thirds of viewers also said that Snoop Dogg’s involvement made them feel more positively about Just Eat as a business. It just goes to show how much celebrity endorsement can influence the public!

7) Viral doesn’t always mean profit

Evian babies

In the days when going viral seems to be the be all and end all of marketing, it’s important to remember that campaigns should be driving sales too. Most of us fondly remember Evian’s dancing babies campaign, and the brand even recreated the ad once more in 2019. We can’t deny that the advert was a huge viral success, and it was difficult to find someone who hadn’t seen the hilarious video. However, the same year that their ad campaign went viral, Evian’s sales dropped 25%. Seems shocking for a campaign that attracted 50 million views in a year, right?

A theory for Evian’s mishap was that they didn’t establish their brand strongly enough within the video, like we saw with Moneysupermarket or GoCompare. It’s an important lesson to learn – although a viral campaign can be exciting, it still needs to successfully push consumers to support your business.


Stuart O'Brien

All stories by: Stuart O'Brien