Black is beautiful

Some of the most memorable advertisements have been for Guinness. Tom Bawden works up a thirst over a new book on the brewery’s advertising history

There’s no real point in advertising Guinness. It’s like Marmite – you either love it or hate it. But I’m glad Guinness does advertise because the ads are brilliant. And author Jim Davies does a great job with the subject matter in his aptly named The Book of Guinness Advertising.

Over 237 pages this bible covers a huge amount of ground, interweaving developments in Guinness advertising, the advertising world as a whole and cultural shifts in the period since the brand first advertised in 1929. And it is packed with more than 350 pictures. Starting with the “golden age” of the poster, the book traces developments in graphics, photography, commercial television and the first media experiments in cyberspace.

You forget how stupid people were in the olden days. Nowadays an advertiser wouldn’t get away with the early slogan: “I’m simply longing for a Guinness, Guinness is so refreshing.” Apparently the average person is bombarded with 13 000 messages a day and so advertising has become more knowing – winking at its audience like a neurotic insomniac. A recent poster offering cans of Guinness at 1/2p, beneath the quote “advertising is legalised lying,” is a good example. The path between the “smack-in-the-face” and “winking wonder” schools of advertising is well documented in The Book of Guinness Advertising.

What strikes the reader is the brilliance and originality of the advertising. The book explains that there is good reason for this. Unlike other breweries, Guinness traditionally hasn’t owned pubs in this country so, unless pub-goers asked for the black stuff by name, the landlord wouldn’t stock it. This gave the brand an incentive to create effective adverts, which has stuck. Who said Marmite?

Each image in the book is contextualised by a caption, backed up by the main body of text, broken into chapters. These give a substantial amount of factual detail covering individual adverts, advertising strategies, cultural and industry developments. Each chapter also includes self-contained features, reminiscent in style to the hypertext facility on the Internet where you double-click for more background information. In general the layout is attractive, simple and easy to navigate.

One feature explores the lengths Guinness went to in order to substantiate the claim that “Guinness is good for you”. It sought testimonials from doctors, fostering goodwill by sending out collectable propagandist booklets at Christmas. Did you have to qualify to be a doctor in those days or could anyone have a crack? One testimony reads: “It [Guinness] contains nearly 7 per cent of solid matter in solution and is therefore a food as well as a stimulant and tonic.”

Other features include a look at Guinness’ response to advertising rationing in World War II, a profile of veteran campaign illustrator John Gilroy and another of that cheeky toucan, revealing it began life as a pelican.

A further section, dedicated to graphics, is likely to be a favourite among the design community. Tom Eckersley and Abram Games, creator of the famous award winning G poster, feature briefly. More detail here would have been nice, but could have unbalanced the book. The section on Irish advertising fails to register the outcry in that country when Guinness transferred its account from an Irish to a British agency in 1996. That the resulting Big Pint campaign was a complete failure is not mentioned. Nor is the extent of the declining market Guinness faces both in England and Ireland.

Traditionally a drink for the older generation, the rise of trendy bottled beers is putting even more pressure on the brand. The problem Guinness faces is how to attract young trendies while retaining its existing hairy-chested clientele. The recent creation of a gay advert, pulled at the last minute for fear of alienating the hairy community, proves the difficulty of the task ahead. The book would have done well to cover this.

The Book of Guinness Advertising is published by Guinness Publishing at 20

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