Great ads of old

This morning, I am abandoning the thought of all current issues and problems and retreating instead into nostalgia. Young folks should stand idly by while I remind old timers of the great ad slots that once adorned billboards, newspaper pages, radio and television spots. These days you see little, if any edifying ads despite the multiplicity of advert agencies and the phenomenal increase in the power, speed and dexterity of ICT tools.


One day in 1976 I saw a giant billboard with a picture of the Kenyan long-distance runner Kipchoge Keino. He sat on a track after winning a race, sweating profusely and drinking from a chilled bottle of Coke. Under the picture was the legend: “Kipchoge Keino. Running is his sport; Coca Cola is his refreshment.” I did not know when I dived into a nearby kiosk for a bottle of Coke, and soon became addicted to it. 

In the 1970s and 1980s the flourishing pan-African magazines Africa, Africa Now, West Africa, New African and South were rich in full-colour ads. One unforgettable one was by the giant South Korean firm Hyundai. It stated, “Rome was not built in a day/Because Hyundai was not there.” Another giant South Korean firm, Samsung, had an ad that listed the alphabets A to Z. Under each alphabet it listed the products or services that it offered, a very wide range of them.


The American firm Xerox, which made photocopiers, boasted in its ads that “We taught the world to copy.” The ad by Xerox’s training academy was even more unforgettable. It said, “We are the only school that encourages copying.” Then there was the American chips maker Wang Laboratories which said in its ads, “There are only two ways in which you can buy an electronic word processor. The Wang way and the wrong way.”

In 1980 or so, the medium sized Japanese construction firm Chiyoda placed a full-page ad in TIME magazine. It said, “We have just completed Nigeria’s third and largest refinery in Kaduna. To do so, we moved 600,000 tonnes of equipment from Lagos port to Kaduna in central Nigeria. We had to reinforce several bridges in advance, move several power and telephone cables and widen many roads. And we completed the project ahead of schedule.” How I wish today’s contractors will do more of that.

Cigarette was once one of the most advertised products across the world. Cigarette’s best-known face was the rugged Western cowboy Marlboro Man. But when Big Tobacco lost a billion-dollar lawsuit in 1992, the winners said in an ad, “The Marlboro Man rode into the sunset.” The Dutch beer firm Heineken had a splashy ad which stated, “Our great grandfather Heineken used to say/You don’t play around with the family name!” It then adds under it, “When you make a great beer, you don’t have to make a great fuss.” In 1983 however when Heineken’s Chairman/CEO Freddy Heineken was kidnapped, Newsweek magazine said in a story, “The company’s ad says when you make a great beer, you don’t have to make a great fuss but last week, Heineken made a great fuss over the kidnap of its chairman.”

The parcel delivery firm DHL had an ad that showed its delivery man riding a sledge pulled by a reindeer in order to deliver a parcel to an isolated cottage on a remote island. Under it was the legend: “Going great lengths to please.” There was this billboard ad of a man escaping from a lion on a Yamaha motorcycle. Airlines were great advertisers in those days, such as KLM which called itself “The flying Dutchman.” I cannot forget an Indian Airlines ad of a Maharaja celebrating his wonderful life of big palaces, beautiful women and exotic food. Then he sobbed and said, “But now I am sick/sick and dejected/ To find an airline that treats every passenger/ Like a Maharaja.”

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees [UNHCR] once had an ad with the pitiable face of a child refugee. Under it was stated: “Your sympathies may not help a refugee. But it is a good beginning.” Newspapers and magazines that carried the ads did not often advertise themselves but TIME magazine once had a frowning picture of Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev with his bushy eyebrows. Beside it was stated: “It is not in my nature to grant interviews.”—Leonid Brezhnev, in an interview with TIME magazine.

In those days billion-dollar advertising brought home to us the names of exotic American firms such as General Motors, General Dynamics, General Electric, Chrysler, Ford Motors, Consolidated Edison, Penn Central Railroad, Morgan Guaranty Trust, Manufacturers Hanover, US Steel, United Technologies, Bechtel, ITT, AT&T, Boeing, Westinghouse, Lockheed, Packard and DeLorean. Probably their greatest ad was Lee Iacocca’s 1984 pitch for Chrysler: “Take a hard look. If you can find a better car, buy it.” 

In Nigeria too, we had many unforgettable ads of the kind that we hardly see today. After winning the Argungu Safari Rally in 1974, Toyota made a huge splash with billboards and newspaper ads saying, “Toyota Corolla/King of the Road.” Very memorable was the 1980s ad by Bagco super sack, of soot covered labourers protesting that they will only carry cement in a Bagco and not any other yama-yama sack. There was the 1990s Pears Vaseline ad in which the child judge dismissed a case against a Mum accused of pinching her son’s vaseline. The judge ruled, “I use it myself. Case dismissed.”  In the 1970s the music recording company EMI’s ubiquitous ad of the dog speaking into a megaphone was quite memorable. It had the legend: “His Master’s Voice.” Probably the most controversial ad in Nigeria was by the toothpaste Daily Need, featuring a couple about to kiss but the woman pulled away. “I won’t do it till you darling/Till you darling/Use Daily Need.” A motion was introduced on the Senate floor in 1982 asking NTA to yank it off because it was immoral!

Very memorable too was the Volkswagen Beetle television ad in which a beetle was stamped and hit several times only for it to recover and match on. The legend was: “There is no killing the beetle.” Probably because we heard them several times a day, bank television commercials are etched in our memory. Such as UBA’s: “Wise men bank with UBA/And women too with UBA/Start a savings account today/With UBA, UBA.” Or: “Union Bank/We set the pace.” 

The 1980s promo for Nigeria placed by the Federal Ministry of Information on NTA was unforgettable: “Me I like Nigeria/ Me I like my country/I like the land and people/ Everything dey for Nigeria/ Make we join hands/ To make Nigeria better/.” ‘Oh yes, wetin man want wey no dey. From the open big land for North, to the thick thick forest for South, to the big big rock for Abuja/Fish dey for water nyam nyam/ Everywhere small pikin dey run left and right/ Ah ah!/ God bless dis country/.”

Central Bank of Nigeria’s [CBN] campaign of the early 1990s against mutilation of the naira was also memorable. The clip showed all the people who really mutilate currency: taxi drivers who squeeze change into their cigarette ash compartment; suya sellers who place naira notes under the meat; market women who push notes into their bras; sprayers at society weddings and gamblers who give naira notes the tightest squeeze.

Some ads are best remembered for their spectacular failure. Probably the leader in that regard was the detergent salesman who had a three-part billboard in Western countries. Part one showed a dirty vest; in the second part it is soaked in detergent; in the third part it comes out squeaky clean. He transplanted his successful billboard into Arabia. Since Arabs read from right to left, what they saw was a very clean vest, soaked in detergent, and it came out very dirty.  

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