Twenty years ago, Dave Shelton and Liz Whiston of Bordello Advertising came up with the line “does exactly what it says on the tin” for their client, Ronseal. Little could they have imagined back in 1994 that it would enter the British vernacular so much so that David Cameron used the slogan to sum up the coalition government, saying: “it is a Ronseal deal – it does what it says on the tin”.
“Back then Ronseal was just another varnish fighting for market share against a lot of fancier lifestyle brands,” Dave Shelton told the BBC. “We had presented a number of different campaigns, all of which had been rejected for ‘trying too hard’. So we decided what was needed wasn’t puns or art. Instead, we would call a spade a spade.”
Calling a spade a spade was quite revolutionary, it turned out. The advertising industry quickly recognised its simple genius with Irn Bru running their own spoof and then an anti-smoking ad which simply showed a pack of cigarettes with the public health warning “Smoking kills” clearly visible. Underneath was the line: “Does exactly what it says on the packet.”
It seems there was a gap in the English language for a phrase that basically means: “Does what it promises”.
Calm down, dear
David Cameron had previous for using ad language with his famous ‘calm down, dear’ put-down at Prime Minster’s Question Time in the House of Commons in 2011. The PM borrowed the catchphrase (made famous by Michael Winner in the esure ads) during a row about NHS reforms.
He’s certainly not the first politician to use ad-speak. In 1984, US presidential hopeful Walter Mondale adopted a phrase from a well-known campaign for hamburger chain Wendy’s –“Where’s the beef?” – to mock Gary Hart, his rival for the Democratic nomination.
And what of the many other examples of iconic straplines that go beyond advertising campaigns and into the collective national psyche? ‘Good things come to those who wait’ (Guinness) and ‘Every Little Helps’ (Tesco) spring to mind. More recently, the annoying ‘Simples’ (catchphrase of Aleksandr the Meerkat, the fictional mammal from the comparethemarket.com campaign) even made it into the Collins English Dictionary.
And, of course, we couldn’t forget the ultimate brand proposition: Marmite.
When Margaret Thatcher died, The Guardian captured the debate with a simple image: a jar of Marmite, with the brand name switched to Margaret. And we all understood completely. It was simple shorthand – you either loved her, or you hated her.
Marmite’s become so embedded in the English language that this breakfast spread is now a byword for anything contentious. Simples.
So what’s your favourite advertising line? We’d love to know…