Poster boys

Posters have never lost their ability to rouse the emotions and convey single, iconic images. But few brands have fully exploited the opportunities of the medium since the golden age of posters was superseded by the advent of TV.

Pears’ Soap used John Millais’ painting Bubbles in a poster campaign that blurred the line between advertising and art in 1886. Meanwhile, the 1930s Guinness posters by John Gilroy, the ‘You Can Be Sure of Shell’ campaign and Bovril’s classic Lady Golfer are all powerful reminders of the glory days of posters.

Today, advertising hoardings are seen more as a way of backing up TV or press messages rather than as a medium in its own right. But there are notable exceptions. The Economist claims to have driven circulation partly through a long-running poster campaign. Benetton used posters controversially in the 1980s and 1990s, though there was a startling lack of connection between product and message, for instance, promoting knitted sweaters by showing a man dying of Aids.

The key rules for creating a successful poster are that you have only four seconds and, possibly, six words to grab the spectator’s attention, and that you have to recognise the limitations of the form. As Russell Ramsey, deputy executive creative director at ad agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty, says of the much-lauded ‘St Wayne’ poster for Nike, ‘Posters are like flags, they don’t tell you much. This one just says that Wayne Rooney plays for England and wears Nike boots, which are probably quite cool.’

The skill lies in turning that simple message into an iconic representation. One of Ramsey’s favourite campaigns at the moment is for the bacon snack Frazzles, which features a cartoon of a pig lying in the bath, using a plugged-in electric hair dryer.

Johnson Banks founder Michael Johnson laments the lack of poster opportunities for graphic designers, who are often relegated to creating the posters seen in the corridors of the London Underground, while ad agencies do the bulk of the outdoor work. He says, ‘The power of posters seems to be diminished by nervous clients and TV. It is hard to prove posters are effective compared to, say, direct marketing, where you can measure the results.’ He adds that poster ads are an expensive way of communicating a message compared to TV or magazine campaigns.

Some believe that, with a few notable exceptions, the last great brand-building poster campaigns were those for Benson & Hedges and Silk Cut in the 1970s and 1980s, which highlighted the gold-and-purple colours of the brands in progressively more inventive ways. As Gerry Moira, UK creative director of Euro RSCG, says, ‘That was the last great flowering of the English commercial poster. Ironically, it was for a soon-to-be-banned product, only there because no other medium would have it.’ Moira believes posters these days are not so much about advertising as getting publicity. Creative director Trevor Beattie, now of ad agency Beattie McGuinness Bungay, has used posters to milk press coverage with both the Wonderbra Hello Boys campaign and French Connection’s FCUK posters.

As Guinness brings back its toucan icon in outdoor advertising, there is a growing appetite for revisiting the poster age. Here we show how posters can be used as a powerful brand-building medium.

St Wayne

Nike’s poster of England footballer Wayne Rooney’s red-painted face and chest, mimicking the St George’s Cross in celebration of the World Cup, appeared only once this year. It was hung on a giant site on a building on the M4, but the controversy surrounding the Christ-like crucifixion pose made sure it ran on the front pages of most of the nation’s tabloid newspapers. Wieden & Kennedy’s poster captures the fervour of Rooney’s goal-scoring celebrations and is a classic Nike brand-building campaign, associating the trainer-maker with the raw passion and idolatry of sport.

The Economist

The Economist’s playful White Out of Red poster campaign has been running since 1988. Created by David Abbott, founder of ad agency Abbott Mead Vickers, its clever puns and aspirational copy are a lesson to all graphic designers, according to Mike Dempsey of CDT Design. ‘You don’t need multi-coloured images – just six words out of one colour and a fantastic idea,’ he says. Some of the executions are deliberately hard to understand, so those who ‘get it’ can feel they are part of an elite club. One has a small fly on the classic red background (denoting fly-on-the-wall reporting). However, some baulk at its smart-arse smugness and claim the posters are not aimed at winning over readers, but at persuading those in the ad industry that The Economist is a good publication to advertise in.

Tate Britain

Tate Britain may have been eclipsed by its Modern offspring, but this poster campaign suggesting personalised tours for visitors has helped drive up attendance at the original gallery. The campaign highlights a number of collections with suggested works to visit according to the mood and inclination of the visitor. There’s the I’ve Just Split Up Collection, the I’m Hungover Collection and the I Have a Big Meeting Collection. They appear on cross-track, six-sheet posters and on leaflets at the gallery. While the heavy copy makes them inappropriate for 48-sheet executions, the campaign is seen as a prime example of how posters can play a key role in changing people’s perceptions of a brand.

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